/ Publication / Count Day: Making Every Virtual Learner Count

Count Day: Making Every Virtual Learner Count
Published on September 9, 2020

Modified on September 10, 2020

Written By: 

Tracy GiesekingMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

|

Chris HarringtonMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Suggested Citation

Gieseking, T. & Harrington, C. (2020). Count day: Making every virtual learner count. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Available from https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/count-day-making-every-virtual-learner-count/

Background

This report arose from discussions by Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) researchers with mentors of virtual learners across the state of Michigan who routinely expressed uncertainty and, quite frankly, a bit of anxiety, around how to report their virtual learners on Count Day. In a system that relies on funding based on the number of students in attendance on Count Day and the fact that not all virtual learners attend school regularly, one can understand their concerns. What follows is a summary of what practitioners shared about their Count Day reporting experiences, an outline of Count Day requirements, of which virtual learners are a small portion, and a potential path toward creating a resource that gives practitioners steps to prepare for reporting virtual learners.  

What is Virtual Learning?

Michigan Department of Education (MDE), in the Pupil Accounting Manual, Section 5-O-D: VIRTUAL LEARNING OPTIONS, describes virtual learning as:

Virtual learning is a method of receiving academic instruction in courses in which the pupil is registered and the courses are taken through a digital learning environment. Virtual learning may be offered at a supervised school facility during the day as a scheduled class period or through self-scheduled learning where pupils have some control over the time, location, and pace of their education. Virtual learning includes, but is not limited to, online learning and computer-based learning, where the delivery of instruction may incorporate a combination of software, technology, and the Internet.

Virtual courses may be selected from the local, board-approved, course catalog, or pupils may select courses from the statewide virtual course catalog (https://micourses.org).

Unless otherwise required by the district, physical attendance is not a requisite of this section. Such would be the case if a district offers blended virtual learning opportunities.

The requirements in this section apply unless the virtual learning is a supplemental component of a course or unless it is an eligible virtual course under Section 5-A, Section 5-G-A, or Section 5-G-B.

What Do We Know About Virtual Learners?

Virtual learners in Michigan represent about 7% of Michigan’s public school students. The majority of virtual learning in Michigan is delivered by traditional public schools who supplement their face-to-face offerings with virtual courses as part of a student’s class schedule. Each year, MVLRI reports on what’s happening with Michigan schools and students regarding virtual learning in its Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report. Based on pupil performance data reported by public schools to MDE and the Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI), the Effectiveness Report highlights virtual course enrollment totals, completion rates, and the overall impact of virtual courses on K-12 pupils. 

The trajectory of virtual learning for the past several years reveals:

  • Growth in the number of schools launching and/or expanding virtual learning options
  • Growth in the number of students choosing virtual courses 
  • Growth in the number of courses offered by virtual learning providers, including schools creating and offering their own virtual courses

The Effectiveness Report is designed to communicate some key findings about virtual learning in Michigan as it evolves over time. Some of these findings have influenced changes MDE has made in the requirements specific to reporting virtual learners on count day.  

What is Count Day?

Count Day is when all public schools in the state of Michigan, commonly known as Local Education Agencies (LEAs), tally the number of students attending their schools. Count information is critical to districts, because each student translates into state funding. Count Days and school funding in Michigan are mandated through the State School Aid Act. 

The attendance requirement states that pupils must be in attendance and receive instruction in all classes on the Count Days. For this reason, districts across the state encourage parents to be sure their children come to class on this day. 

Michigan has two official Count Days – the first Wednesday in October and the second Wednesday in February. These counts are used to determine the amount of state aid each district will receive. The largest portion of an LEA’s funding is based on the October Count Day attendance figures (90%), and the remaining 10% comes from the February attendance figures. According to MDE, the calculation of funding the schools receive is based on a blend of both spring and fall student count data. The blend is based on the prior school year’s spring count, and the current school year’s fall count.

Michigan’s Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs) and Intermediate School Districts (ISDs) staff pupil accounting offices that work with local school districts to ensure that both the local districts and RESA/ISD have an accurate count of students, verify that all MDE procedures are followed, and serve as a resource to local districts. Additionally, the State School Aid Act mandates that MDE require each district, public school academy, and RESA/ISD to have a pupil membership audit by a RESA/ISD auditor. 

According to MDE’s Pupil Membership Auditing Manual, a desk audit is performed for every district each count. A desk audit is a limited review of the district’s documentation and must be done for each building, in all districts, for every count period. MDE requires a field audit be done on high school buildings at least once every 2 school years and on all middle school and elementary school buildings at least once every 4 school years. In addition to the requirements of the desk audit, the field audit requires the ISD auditor to visit the district building being audited to review pupil membership records in depth. Specific procedures are found in the Conducting the Field Audit section of the auditing manual. After completion of the audits, narratives of the results are sent to MDE, as well as to the districts.

MDE maintains the state’s Pupil Accounting Manual (PAM) and the Pupil Membership Auditing Manual. The manuals contain the most extensive and accurate guidance on what LEAs need to report on virtual learners for Count Day and how to report in a way that can easily be audited. It is worth noting that in years where the state’s budget approval is delayed, updates to the manuals prior to the start of school are also typically delayed. MVLRI research discovered that school personnel become less confident that following the previous year’s guidelines will ensure they are doing what’s required for the current year. MDE understands this, affirms that using the existing PAM is appropriate, and that the manual is updated soon after the state budget is final. Discussions with LEA practitioners also revealed variations in how practitioners interpret the manual language and translate it into practice. Assistance with the interpretation and application of the content of the manual from other practitioners is available through state-wide organizations such as the Michigan Pupil Attendance and Accounting Association (MPAAA) and Michigan School Business Officials (MSBO) if you are a member. 

MVLRI’s research also sought to better understand the concerns and dependencies associated with Count Day reporting. Some common themes emerged during our discussions with school personnel who support virtual learners. 

  • Those who support students taking virtual courses play a crucial role in their districts in assuring every virtual learner is funded
  • They want to ensure their records meet the standards of their pupil accounting auditor
  • They want to ensure students are given Count Day expectations at the start of their online course so that October’s Count Day reporting requirements are met 
  • They want to spend more time helping students and less time compiling Count Day reports that are audit-approved and use technology tools to generate electronic records 

Are Schools Reporting Virtual Learners Correctly? 

Academic mentors who support students taking virtual courses clearly recognize the importance of having every student count when it comes to funding. In reality, however, there are times where mentors change from year-to-year, sometimes after the start of online courses in a given school year. In such instances, the mentors may not receive adequate training to understand what’s expected for Count Day. Mentor stories reflect similar wishes for an easier, less time-intensive way to report virtual learning so they can “focus on helping students succeed.” 

Two-Way Communication

MDE’s Pupil Accounting Manual (PAM), in Section 5-O-D Virtual Learning Options, explains the reporting requirements and defines two-way interaction. 

3) Two-way Interaction

Two-way interaction is the communication that occurs between the teacher of record or mentor and pupil, where one party initiates communication and a response from the other party follows that communication. Responses must be to the communication initiated by the teacher of record or mentor, and not some other action taken.

This interaction may occur through, but is not limited to, means such as email, telephone, instant messaging, or face-to-face conversation. Parent or guardian facilitated two-way interaction may be required if the pupil is in grades K-5 and does not yet possess the skills necessary to participate in two-way interaction unassisted.

Two-way interactions are expected to continue throughout the course, even when not being used for membership purposes. The two-way interactions must relate to a virtual course on the pupil’s schedule and pertain to course content or progress.

In the same section, the four-week time period to record the two-way interaction is also defined.

4) Two-way Interaction Calendar

When used for membership purposes, a pupil must complete at least 1 two-way interaction per week for each week of the 4-week count period.

The first week in which participation is measured begins on Count Day (Wednesday) and continues through the following Tuesday. Each consecutive week starts on Wednesday and ends on the following Tuesday, for a total of 4 weeks including the week that began on Count Day. The district shall maintain an activity log that documents details of two-way interactions for each pupil. An illustration of the calendar used for this purpose appears in Figure 1 below.

If a school break is scheduled during the count period and is 4 days or longer, the requirement for weekly two-way interaction does not apply for that week. If instruction has been canceled districtwide during a week for 3 school days or longer, the requirement for weekly two-way interaction does not apply for that week.

Note: For a pupil who transitions from an online environment where weekly two-way interactions are required to a seated environment where regular attendance is required, physical attendance in scheduled courses may be considered when determining if this requirement is satisfied. For pupils transitioning from a virtual environment to homebound or hospitalized services, or to home-based instruction, the participation requirements of the applicable section begins at the point of transition in the program.

Source: MDE Pupil Accounting Manual, 2019-20. Section 5-0-D-4

The most frequently expressed confusion for schools related to how best to document the student two-way communication requirement for a virtual course. The purpose of documenting two-way interaction in a virtual course is the same as in the face-to-face setting — to assure a student can demonstrate what they are learning in their course. In a given school year, student experiences can range from a student taking a single course at school during the day to a student taking every course virtually and never being in a physical school building. Examples for schools from MDE for the various virtual learner scenarios was suggested as a way to mitigate confusion.

Variations in documentation practices by schools ranged from paper records organized by student name in three-ring binders, to the use of applications like remind.com and Google Forms, to the use of reports generated from course provider learning management systems (LMSs). A student’s record of progress on Count Day is dependent on the course provider and the reports that can be generated from the school’s LMS. In situations where an instructor is grading student work, there may be a lag in progress updates during the review of student work and grading. In a course that is auto-graded, progress is dependent solely on the student completing their assigned work. Those in a school (or RESA/ISD) well-versed in the idiosyncrasies related to reporting pupils on Count Day may not be known to the people working day-to-day with virtual learners. Transferring this information to the virtual program staff within a school can be easily accomplished through some structured training.  

What Resources Exist on How to Report Virtual Learners?

A recent webinar with MDE entitled Count Day Reporting for Virtual Learners hosted by Michigan Virtual, shared a number of things LEAs can do to establish sound practices for reporting virtual learners. During the webinar, MDE personnel responded to school practitioner questions and recognized that we are all working on how best to assure virtual learning is provided in a way that is best for student success. MDE also encouraged school personnel to communicate with their auditor at least annually as a best practice. MDE noted that the LEA’s auditor is in the best position to validate for the school that the process they intend to use is the most effective and efficient way to facilitate the reporting of virtual learners. MDE also emphasized the best practice of archiving and backing up reports – whether electronic, paper, or both – for a minimum of two full school years prior to the current school year. 

Providing Guidance

Designing a process for practitioners to report virtual learners, which they can adapt to their own environment, may be a reasonable extension to this research. Schools need a way to transfer knowledge about virtual learning requirements and their processes to any mentor or staff new to a school’s online program. Experienced mentors suggest incorporating best practices such as acclimating students at the start of the course to what is expected for Count Day, and including tips like celebrating Count Day as a way to motivate students and encourage their presence, could ease the burden of last-minute scrambling on Count Day encountered by some schools. 

MVLRI produced six Guides to Online Learning which incorporate best practices for supporting virtual learners. Adding to this family of Guides a section related to Count Day reporting best practices may be one pathway MVLRI can promote the practices supported by MDE.

Conclusion

MVLRI’s continued collaboration with MDE, MPAAA, and school-based mentors/practitioners can contribute to documented best practices for reporting virtual learners on Count Day. Designing a mechanism to annually adjust and enhance best practices as legislation changes and reporting capability evolves seems to be a reasonable action. Expanding communication channels to distribute these best practices, perhaps in August and January of each year, can also increase the confidence of school staff involved in Count Day reporting that their process is sound and will lead to a smooth audit of their virtual program. 

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