Public school attendance has been lower in Galveston County districts during the first few weeks of this academic year than during the same period in 2019, before the COVID pandemic.
Although administrators aren’t certain what’s keeping children home, many think a combination of sick students staying home, concerned parents quarantining their children and general confusion over changing guidance from the state all could be factors.
Unlike last year, many districts don’t have virtual options for parents who want to keep their children at home, and administrators attribute high absence rates to quarantines of children who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.
Most districts are giving excused absences to students who quarantine because of a positive test or a close contact, administrators said.
That’s the case at Texas City Independent School District, where about 89 percent of the high school students attended the first week of classes, compared with 95 percent during the same period in 2019, spokeswoman Melissa Tortorici said.
The district’s high schools enroll about 2,500 students, which means about 275 have been absent so far.
“It could be because we have kids that are sick and not coming,” Tortorici said.
Last year, the state asked districts to quarantine the close contacts of COVID-positive students. But this year, the state recommends parents decide whether to send their children to school or keep them home if the child was a close contact to someone who had contracted COVID.
Unlike many districts, Hitchcock has developed a virtual instruction option for students at home because of a positive COVID test or a close contact of a COVID-positive person, a quarantine period that typically lasts 10 days, Superintendent Travis Edwards said.
By day 10 of the Hitchcock school year, 264 of the 1,948 students, 13.6 percent, were counted absent, compared with 45 of 1,780 students, 2.5 percent, in 2019, according to district data.
Additionally, the Texas Education Agency has been changing guidance about how and when districts notify parents about COVID cases and when students should stay home, leading to some parent confusion.
Not every student in a classroom counts as a close contact and the district must notify all students in a class of a positive case, Edwards said.
“That’s the frustrating part,” Edwards said. “TEA has kind of put us in a position where we’re giving parents a reason to panic when they really don’t need to.”
Those students who aren’t close contacts can’t take virtual classes and would be considered absent, he said.
In the weeks before and after school started, the Texas Education Agency issued a flurry of guidances about how districts should handle and notify parents about COVID-positive students.
In the newest guidance issued Thursday, the agency requires schools to notify the parents of all students in a classroom, extracurricular or after-school program if one student in that group tests positive.
Parents of students who are close contacts can opt to send their child to school or keep them home, according to agency guidance. The school can require students to stay at home if they are a close contact because someone the child lives with tested positive.
Students who quarantine at home — positive with COVID or close contacts — can receive remote instruction.
Clear Creek school administrators also blame COVID concerns for the lower attendance rates for the first weeks of the 2021 academic year.
“We do suspect the lower attendance for the first week of school compared to 2019 is COVID-19-related and parents had hesitation about sending their students to school,” spokeswoman Elaina Polsen said.
Almost 98 percent of students showed up the first week of school this year, compared with almost 99 percent in 2019, according to district data. By the second week of school, 90 percent of elementary students were attending, compared with 96.8 percent in 2019, according to district data.
The largest district in the county, Clear Creek enrolls 42,234 students.
Students not physically in school are considered absent, but the district soon will begin offering a virtual option for students at home because of temporary medical conditions, Polsen said.
The district announced last week it would offer remote instruction. As of Tuesday, 633 elementary and 84 sixth-grade students had signed up, according to the district.
Santa Fe school administrators are monitoring attendance with the goal of keeping it above 90 percent of the 4,300 students, spokeswoman Patti Hanssard said.
The district averaged 93 percent attendance in August, lower than the 95 percent to 96 percent it averaged during the first two weeks of 2019, she said.
“This new variant yet again has brought challenges to the 2021 to 2022 school year,” Hanssard said.
Hanssard wasn’t sure whether parents were keeping their students home out of fear of the virus, she said.
“We are encouraging our students to attend if they’re not symptomatic or not ill,” Hanssard said.
Even if a student is asymptomatic, the district strongly encourages masking of close contacts who choose to come to school for 10 days after an exposure, she said.
Attendance always fluctuates somewhat in the first few weeks of a school year, Tortorici said.
“Attendance doesn’t normally settle down until after Labor Day,” Tortorici said.
So for now, the district is gathering data and monitoring absences to keep track of any trends that emerge, she said.
“It’s still so early,” Tortorici said.