desk stock file photo school

During a tour of the West Jefferson High School with coronavirus precautions it can be seen that each desk in the classroom has a grey or red sticker on the top corner in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Each period, students will be asked to alternate their use of desks and to clean them off after each class. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

On the 10th day of the new school year, 2,000 of the nearly 41,000 students enrolled in Baton Rouge public schools were no-shows.

The absentees were identified Tuesday when the East Baton Rouge Parish school system conducted head counts at 56 of its 71 traditional schools and 14 district-sponsored charters. 

The new numbers come as many families face heightened anxiety about the deadly coronavirus, particularly the more infectious delta variant. It’s not clear, though, how much fear of COVID-19 is driving down attendance.

McKinley High counted 262 missing students on Tuesday — the most of any school in the district. Four more schools tallied more than 100 students on the rolls but not in class: Capitol Middle, Bernard Terrace Elementary, Audubon Elementary and Belaire High. Another eight reported 50 to 100 missing students.

The numbers were even worse last week. 

On Friday, eight schools recorded 100 or more missing students when staff came through and counted heads. That same day, Istrouma High reported the most missing, with 439 unaccounted for, followed by McKinley High with 399 missing students. Belaire and Broadmoor high schools counted nearly as many missing, with 375 and 387, respectively.

Only four campuses are reporting more students in desks than on their rolls.

Sharon Williams, chief of schools for the district, said that she’s expecting enrollment and attendance to grow through Labor Day weekend, as it has in years past.

“We anticipate having a more clear and full picture of enrollment and attendance once we reach September and families and students have settled back into the routine of school,” she said.

She noted that McKinley High had one of the highest percentages of students learning virtually last year and is now working to get them back.

“We know that COVID is not a driving factor for absences (there) — that’s why we’re working closely with our school level teams to make contact with and re-engage families,” Williams said.

Other schools that had a lot of virtual students last year, though, aren’t having the same trouble.

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For instance, Woodlawn High had about half its students learning virtually last year, but on Friday had 1,412 students on campus — just 15 less than its overall enrollment.

The 10-day count is an important milestone in the school year in Baton Rouge. After that date, schools start dropping students who are no-shows. A total of 410 students have missed all 10 days so far, while almost 700 more have missed at least five days.

In early September, school officials will start moving teachers and other staff from schools with low enrollment to schools more in demand, a process known as leveling.

The big counts, though, occur Oct. 1 and Feb. 1. Enrollment on those days largely determines how much money each school gets from the state.

Last year, true attendance was harder to gauge because more than 12,000 students — a third of the students in the school system — elected to learn virtually. This year, Williams’ boss, Superintendent Sito Narcisse, has pushed to bring as many kids as possible back to in-person instruction.

Virtual instruction this year is limited to the EBR Virtual Academy. That school on Tuesday had 1,079 students, almost all of them students who’ve transferred recently from other schools in the district. Some of those students may return later to their home schools.

Quarantines may also be lowering attendance.

Audubon Elementary reported last week that it had 291 individuals quarantined; the number of students on campus dropped from 451 to 306 between last Wednesday and Friday.

The system’s current enrollment of 40,854 students is slightly higher than it was at this time last year. The overall number, however, obscures continued declines at traditional schools. Only three out of 10 traditional schools added students in the past year.

Charters are still growing overall, but individually it’s a mixed bag. About half are growing and have declined. The most growth is at IDEA Innovation, which has 109 more students than it had a year ago at this point in the school year, and the biggest decline is at J.K. Haynes Charter, which is down 37 students compared with a year ago.

Four new charter schools opened this year, but all are well under capacity. The new school with the most students is BASIS Mid City, which has more than 300 students, including a large kindergarten of about 120 students, while the smallest is Helix Legal Academy, which has just 20 new students.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.