Santa Barbara High School
Santa Barbara High School has about 52 students who don’t have WiFI. It is working hard to check in with students since COVID-19 forced the closure of schools. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

As many as 456 students do not have access to WiFi and are unable to attend online remote classes in the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

The school district has struggled to track the number of students who are attending class and those who have WiFi access. District officials acknowledged Tuesday that they don’t have actual numbers of WiFi connectivity or the number of families who have been “lost” from the system. 

“We don’t have a good idea on who has signed up and who hasn’t,” said Todd Ryckman, chief educational technology officer. “We are attempting to go back and make phone calls.”

The lack of WiFi for some students points to a larger problem for the district: It does not have a clear number on the number of “lost students” — or students who have not signed on since spring break. 

“At the secondary level, since we have not been tracking attendance in the traditional manner, it’s more difficult to pin down precise attendance numbers,” Frann Wageneck, assistant superintendent of student services, said in a statement. Wageneck recently directed secondary counselors and deans of student engagement to check in personally with every student who does not attend class.

Wageneck said the district is working to find those students and families. 

“That’s really their mission right now, to follow up with each student and gauge what is going on if they are missing class,” Wageneck said.”Our teachers are checking in, and where they are missing students, they are passing that information on to the deans and the counselors, and those folks are calling students to make sure they connect.”

The district has not provided on-site classes for the past two weeks since spring break. 

“Our focus over the past several weeks has been making sure students are safe and putting systems in place for providing learning opportunities,” Wageneck said. 

The California Department of Education has not required schools to take attendance, so schools have not reported formal attendance. 

Teachers are monitoring “a variety of indicators” to track students and gauge how they are doing with distance learning, such as turning in assignments, logging onto their devices and being present in class.

Even if a student does log in, the district does not know how many teachers are providing asynchronous or synchronous classes through Zoom or other technology. It’s not a number or percentage that can easily be derived because it depends on individual teachers and individual kinds of courses. The district did not take the approach of providing prescriptive guidelines for teaching. 

Elise Simmons, principal at Santa Barbara High School, said, “Everyone is doing the best they can.”

Santa Barbara High School has at least 15 students out of 2,200 that the school has been unable to contact.

“I worry deeply about them,” Simmons said. “I have so many questions about what we can do to help them. Those who we haven’t heard from now we can unleash everything we have to support them or re-engage them.”

Simmons asked every teacher to make contact with families of students in their second periods who had not attended class and they whittled down a larger number into the 15 after making contact with families. Information at all the campuses is being reported to a data dashboard. 

“It warms my heart to see the extent to which teachers are learning new things and trying things and reaching out to new families,” Simmons said. 

On the issue of synchronous vs. asynchronous classes, it’s up to the teacher. Teachers were told to engage with students for at least three hours a week. 

“I get the sense that there are teachers who are zooming every week and there are teachers who are posting things through NEO,” Simmons said. 

Simmons said anecdotally that some classes have 90 percent attendance and others only about one-third. 

“It depends on the class,” Simmons said, adding that there’s a correlation between students who take honors classes and those who take college prep classes.

At the elementary level individual teachers are monitoring their students and tracking attendance via a “check-in” chart. Teachers are following up with families as needed.

Wageneck said the district can also monitor student engagement by looking at who has logged into their district-issued iPad, but some students are logging in using their personal devices, so the district log would not reflect their participation. Wageneck said the district plans to start tracking daily attendance more systematically next week, and will report that out “with the goal of monitoring our students’ health and well-being, and not in a punitive manner.”

Harding University Partnership School Principal Veronica Binkley said nine of the district’s 383 TK-6 students have had “no contact” with the school.

“I would not doubt that based on these furloughs those families have left the area,” Binkley said. “It’s heartbreaking on so many levels. Our school in a general sense represents routine. It  represents structure. For many, it represents food. For some to lose that, it has to be very unsettling for them and their families.”

She said the next step is to start knocking on doors. 

“We need to definitively figure out what happened to them,” Binkley said. 

She added that teachers and parents have worked hard and fast to find students who didn’t have WiFi and make sure they were connected. 

“Were using all sorts of creative methods to get the kids connected,” she said. “Pretty much everyone in our classes has a website and we are doing a lot of instruction through Google slides and Zoom.”

Teachers are also filling out attendance rosters to track the kids who are not coming.

Still, it was just Tuesday that some students at Harding received iPads. The district dropped off 82 iPads; students who didn’t have them were using cell phones or some other device, if they were logging on. 

Ryckman said there were 35 students from Harding who did not have WiFi that were on the list that was sent to Cox. Binkley said today the number is lower than 35.

Last month, the district sent Cox Communications a list of 300 families who did not have access to WiFi. Cox Communications, however, will not provide feedback on how many families it has reached to install the WiFi, citing privacy reasons. Cox has agreed to provide free WiFi access for two months to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Cox typically sends a self-installation kit to the families. 

According to Ryckman, Santa Barbara High School has the most number of students without WiFi, about 52, followed by San Marcos at 41 and Dos Pueblos at 36. In the elementary schools, Cleveland led with the most students without WiFi, tied with Harding at 35.

Cox would not say how many of the families the district informed them about now had WiFi access. The district has about 13,000 students. 

“We can’t share that due to privacy issues, but of the 300 families sent over by Santa Barbara Unified, any on assistance programs who don’t already have service with Cox should qualify and we are working to get them installed as quickly as possible to meet educational needs,” said Charla Batey, communications specialist for Cox.

Ryckman said the district has about 500 WiFi hotspots that arrived this week and he plans to get them into the hands of students who need them.

That will happen once the district finds out who those students are. 

By the Numbers
(Below is a list of campuses and number of students needing WiFi, according to Todd Ryckman, chief educational technology officer. It is unknown how many of these students Cox has reached out to.)

Adams: 24
Franklin: 33
Cleveland: 35
Harding: 35
McKinley: 30
Monroe: 21
Roosevelt: 16
Santa Barbara Community Academy: 32
Washington: 23

Goleta Valley Junior High: 18
La Colina: 15
La Cumbre: 16
Santa Barbara Junior High: 21

Dos Pueblos High School: 36
Santa Barbara High School: 52
San Marcos High School: 41
La Cuesta / Alta Vista: 8

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.