Fending off chronic absenteeism during COVID and beyond

The pandemic has exasperated student absenteeism issues. Here are 4 practical strategies to help improve school attendance, whether it's for remote or in-person learning.
By: | January 25, 2021
Getty Images: Laura OlivasGetty Images: Laura Olivas

Students of all ages are susceptible to the adverse effects of poor school attendance.

Districts facing chronic absenteeism issues precipitated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response can use strategies to ensure students have data-driven supports to attend classes regularly, in person or otherwise, says Catherine Cooney, associate director of communications for Attendance Works, the nonprofit action research project studying chronic absenteeism.

“Districts continue to reach out to us about using data to inform their action and then creating communities of practice to build school-level capacity to use the data to inform their strategies for supporting children and families,” she says.

Cooney suggests four strategies for improving school attendance during and following the pandemic response:

1. Conduct relational home visits, when and where possible, to connect educators and families so they can collaborate to support their students. These visits are meetings set up in advance at a mutually convenient time when teachers and families can learn from each other and address issues like chronic absenteeism.

2. Employ restorative practices that engage individuals in decisions that affect them. Provide reasoning behind those decisions, and clearly set out expectations.

3. Reach out with “nudge letters,” simply written truancy notifications sent home. Such communication provides families with clear and actionable information that, rather than blame them, empowers them to address attendance issues.

4. Consider Tier 2 mentoring supports. Under your district’s multi-tiered system of support framework, the supports can help maintain or improve student engagement.

Which students are more likely to suffer from chronic absenteeism?

Cooney expects that at least three major groups will have significant challenges. Students likely to be most affected by the pandemic response are:

  • Young children living in poverty whose families delayed entry to kindergarten and pre-K.
  • Students of any age who have struggled so much with unstable housing and health and trauma that they are currently not participating in any kind of schooling or have missed tremendous amounts of school.
  • Older children who have ended up leaving school to work to help their families make ends meet.

Collect data to identify and serve vulnerable students

“Districts will need to identify … these vulnerable student populations and partner with their families to determine how to best help them through the spring, summer, and re-entry to school,” says Cooney.

“Districts should use their data to identify which students have lost out on learning during this past year,” she continues, adding that there should be school-level teams to monitor data and enlist communitywide support.

Adding metrics—in categories for contact, connectivity, relationships and participation—can activate districts’ tiered support system and paint a holistic picture of whether students can benefit from remote or hybrid learning, says Cooney.

The metrics might ask, for each category: what are the district and community responsibilities, what data can and should be collected, and what are the equity implications?

Johnny Jackson is an editor at TitleIAdmin, a DA sister publication.