In the spring of 2020, many schools closed to in-person instruction virtually overnight. Without the planning and technology in place to guarantee equal opportunity to learning, many districts suspended traditional attendance requirements. And it’s not hard to imagine why: In May of 2020, 25% of Los Angeles’s students did not log in to class once, and the majority of teachers nationwide reported that fewer than half their students were attending online classes.
Although we’re past the initial crisis, schools are still working out some big questions about how distance learning will factor into attendance requirements. Even when the majority of students go back to in-person learning, remote options are likely to continue for circumstances such as snow days and chronic illness. So what will attendance and absenteeism look like in a post-COVID world? We’ll see what the experts are saying and how educators can start helping today.
What Causes Absenteeism?
Even before the pandemic, absenteeism was a perennial problem, with more than 8 million students missing more than a month of school every year. Moreover, students living in poverty were four times more likely to miss school. Unfortunately, the pandemic exacerbated these existing problems, as well as many of the other leading causes of absenteeism, including:
- Disabilities: Students with developmental disabilities are twice as likely to miss too many days of school. Examples of these disabilities might include ADHD, autism, spectrum disorders, intellectual disability, or other developmental delays.
- Chronic physical illness: Conditions such as asthma, diabetes, seizure disorders, allergies, and poor oral health can contribute to more frequent absences. Some of these illnesses have an indirect impact on attendance; for example, food allergies do not directly hinder academic achievement, but they are highly associated with bullying, which can lead to absences.
- Poor mental health: Depression, panic disorders, PTSD, eating disorders, and the like also have a negative impact on school attendance. Unfortunately, many of these issues are on the rise since the onset of the pandemic.
- Bullying and social anxiety: Bullying has long been the real cause behind false claims of tummy aches. As digital bullying has come to fruition, the problem has only worsened.
What Does Attendance Mean During Distance Learning?
In a traditional school setting, attendance is fairly straightforward: If the child is sitting in class, he or she is present; if not, he or she is absent. However, distance learning can get tricky. For example, what if you are only “live” with your students for a limited time during the day and they’re supposed to work independently afterward? Are they “present” if they attend the live session but don’t complete the independent work? Or what if a student is logged on but doesn’t turn on a webcam or microphone?
Schools have used a variety of methods to check day-to-day attendance in distance learning. For example, students might be required to e-mail or call their teacher at least once a day, or use software to mark themselves present each class period. But as school leaders know, combatting absenteeism involves much more than checking a box on an app.
Attendance Works recommends taking a more nuanced approach to monitoring attendance. In the wake of the COVID-19 shutdowns, they came up with the following metrics to help educators track their efforts in keeping their students in class:
- Contact: It may sound simple, but it’s not always a given that schools have the current contact information for students’ families. Step one to encouraging better attendance is to make sure you can connect with students when you don’t see them in person. Attendance Works provides excellent strategies for reaching out to families, including nontraditional methods such as social media, home visits, sign boards, and flyers.
- Connectivity: Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to easy communication is lack of access to technology. According to Attendance Works, 9 million students in the U.S. don’t have access to the Internet and 11 million don’t have access to a computer. When planning their communication strategy, schools should evaluate their population’s level of access to technology at home.
- Relationships: When students (and their families) feel connected to educators, they’re more likely to come to class and want to be involved with their school community. Schools can help families feel more connected by offering virtual meetings (when in-person isn’t possible) and soliciting feedback on whether they feel involved in school events and decision making. For students, it’s important to approach absences from a positive, caring angle (e.g., “Is everything okay at home?” vs. “Why haven’t you logged in to class?”). Educators should also check in on students’ social–emotional health and provide plenty of opportunities for interaction with teachers and peers.
- Participation: Especially in an online setting, attendance is not measured well by just tracking students’ time on a Zoom call or time logged in to a learning management system. Rather, schools and teachers should make sure students are turning in assignments, posting to chats, picking up homework packets, and attending both large and small group meetings. According to Attendance Works, if you notice a low level of participation early in the school year, this is a strong indicator of absenteeism issues later in the year, so early intervention is critical.
Strategies for Encouraging Attendance and Intervening in Absenteeism
- Track early-warning metrics. As mentioned above, lack of participation or drops in performance can be an indicator for problems with absenteeism later on. Examples might include not turning in assignments, not logging in to a virtual class, or plummeting grades or test scores. The next section of this article highlights some apps you can use to track these data points. Learning management systems such as Google Classroom, Schoology, and ASSISTments can also compile such information for you.
- Keep parents informed about student absences. Parents often underestimate just how much school their children have missed and the impact those absences are having on their education. It’s important not to be accusatory or punitive when informing parents about absences. Rather, one study found that it’s much more effective to send notifications that use simple language, highlight the negative effects of missing school, and encourage parents that they can help their students succeed in school.
- Identify barriers to attendance. Barriers to attendance might not always be obvious. For example, in a remote learning situation, even if students have access to the Internet or a computer, they might also be responsible for caring for younger siblings or elderly relatives, which can keep them out of class. Attendance Works has some excellent handouts on how to identify and address the barriers to attendance at your school.
- Help students feel like they belong. As mentioned in the previous section, relationships are key to increasing students’ desire to persist in school. Building a sense of belonging can happen through simple things like greeting students as they arrive at school, offering structured recess, and following best practices such as restorative justice and cultural inclusivity. Teachers and fellow students are key to creating a healthy community, but there are other ways to help too. For example, the Check & Connect program helps schools get at-risk kids connected to mentors who guide them through school, and Positive Action helps schools meaningfully address social–emotional skills.
- Provide health, transportation, breakfast, and laundry services where possible. Sickness is the number one cause of absences, but unreliable transportation options, lack of clean clothes, and simply not eating breakfast can all contribute to students missing school or not performing well in class (which can lead to further absenteeism issues). These programs obviously require significant resources and coordinated efforts within the district and community. Check out this report from FutureEd for more ideas on how to get these programs off the ground.
Tech Tools for Combating Absenteeism
The following tools are designed specifically to help educators keep track of absences and also uncover potential correlations between absences, academic performance, and other important factors.
- TrackCC: This app allows teachers to track absences, but also has features for monitoring behavioral and academic performance, which makes spotting correlations easier.
- GradesFirst: Typically used in college settings, GradesFirst allows teachers to track absences and performance each day.
- Kinvolved: Focusing on the holistic method, alongside general attendance tracking, Kinvolved seeks to keep tabs on absenteeism while uncovering the root causes of it.
Absenteeism is a problem that can’t be solved by any one group or any one strategy. It requires teachers, school leaders, and parents to come together to address the many underlying causes and set students up for long-term social, emotional, and intellectual success.