School & District Management

3 Steps to Drive Down Chronic Absenteeism

By Caitlynn Peetz — October 16, 2023 8 min read
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It’s a well-established fact that students’ absences have spiked in recent years, another consequence attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as time passes, the severity of the issue becomes clearer, and more researchers and education experts are sounding the alarm.

In a study of federal data released just last week, Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University found that 2 out of 3 students in the United States were enrolled in schools with high or extreme rates of chronic absenteeism—defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year for any reason—during the 2021-22 school year.

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Illustration of an attendance sheet.
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That’s more than double the rate in the 2017-18 academic year.

It’s a perplexing challenge for district leaders who noticed a spike in chronic absences when schools first reopened to in-person classes, but figured the absences would abate over time, according to Scott Fassbach, chief research officer for education consulting firm EAB.

Surely, parents would push their children to return to classrooms after seeing how difficult it was to keep up with schoolwork while locked out of buildings, they thought.

It seems that was flawed thinking, Fassbach said during a webinar for superintendents and district leaders co-hosted by AASA, The Superintendents Association, on Oct. 12.

That’s because the reasons students are missing school are more complex now than they were before the pandemic, and addressing the problem will take an entirely new approach that focuses on students, families, and teachers, he said.

“We basically need a new playbook,” Fassbach said.

Parents are more likely now to rationalize absences and have lowered the threshold for keeping their children home from school for illness, in part because schools’ messaging over the past three years has generally been, “When in doubt, keep your kid home,” Fassbach explained.

Districts have not been sitting idly by, but their messages about the importance of attending school could be falling on deaf ears if they’re not coming from the people parents know and trust—usually teachers.

EAB research has found that 72 percent of parents say they want to hear about the importance of school attendance from their child’s teacher, but just 42 percent report hearing from any school staff member at all about the topic in the past six months.

On top of that, extended pandemic school closures led more students to feel disconnected, Fassbach said.

Half of students who responded to a recent EAB survey reported feeling that they don’t belong at school, and about half said they fear going to a teacher for academic help. Two-thirds said they aren’t comfortable telling an adult in the school about bullying, or don’t know whom to talk to in the first place.

A recent EdWeek Research Center survey of 1,034 high school students, conducted in August and September, had different findings: 84 percent of students said they have an adult to whom they feel safe talking when they’re upset, stressed, or having problems, and teachers are the most common adult students go to (39 percent of students). But aside from physical illness and bad weather, anxiety was the most common reason students cited for why they had missed school in the past year, highlighting the effects of students’ declining mental health on attendance.

“These are issues brought about by COVID, which has severed the relationships students have with K-12 education,” Fassbach said.

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Districts need to address these “root causes” of high absences to begin to address the issue, he said. Doing so will take a “three-pronged” approach:

  • Educating parents about why being in school is so important, and clearly communicating expectations;
  • Getting students to want to show up to school; and
  • Convincing teachers of the importance of being involved in attendance issues.

Below are Fassbach’s top tips for addressing chronic absenteeism.

Bringing families back requires partnership—not punishment

Families usually aren’t purposefully trying to be passive toward or uncaring about their children’s education, Fassbach said. Oftentimes parents are simply trying to protect their children—whether from illness or in an effort to safeguard their well-being—so a little bit of empathy can go a long way.

Instead of threatening students with detention or suspension, or parents with law enforcement intervention due to truancy, school staff could instead ask families if they’re doing OK, and ask what barriers they’re facing in getting their child to school.

“If you lead with preaching and prosecution, parents are scared, they’re in denial, or maybe don’t even understand,” Fassbach said.

In many states, schools are required to send a letter home after a certain number of absences with information about possible repercussions if the child continues to miss classes. It can be informative, Fassbach said, but usually doesn’t offer solutions to families’ problems and can make them feel isolated or cause them to further retreat.

Fassbach recommended schools reach out before families receive the state-mandated letter. So, if the letter is required at five absences, consider reaching out after three, he said.

Schools can use text messaging systems they already have in place to send a message to families that says something like, “We missed [child’s name] in school today! How can we help make it easier for them to join class again?” Then, include a list of options, like, pressing “1" to discuss alternative transportation and pressing “2" to schedule time to chat with a teacher, Fassbach said.

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Districts that take this approach would need to designate an employee to triage responses, he added.

It’s also important to establish clear policies about when parents should keep children home due to illness, as the pandemic-era rule of thumb to stay home due to any cold-like symptoms no longer applies. Those illness policies should say exactly when to stay home (if a child has a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher or has a persistent cough, for example), and they could be incorporated into an easy-to-read graphic or flow chart, and should be shared at least once per month, via school newsletter or an email or text message reminder.

Parents want to hear from teachers

Parents know their child’s teachers better than most other staff members in the building, so they trust them the most, Fassbach said. That means they’re more likely to listen to teachers when schools are trying to communicate about the importance of attending class, even though teachers’ involvement in attendance issues usually stops at marking absences at the beginning of the day or class period.

Beyond that, teachers and schools generally view attendance as an issue for administrators to handle, Fassbach said.

At a time when many teachers are burnt out and their morale is low, asking them to take on another task is a big reach.

So, schools should be clear about “the why, the what, and the how,” Fassbach said.

School or district leaders should make a short checklist of one or two actions teachers should do every day, every week, and every grading period that relate to attendance, and make sure that list is posted in a visible spot, like at the teacher’s desk.

“I don’t think teachers and administrators are clear on what everyone’s expected to do about student attendance,” Fassbach said. “A lot of it goes unwritten, and, frankly, if it’s unwritten, it’s not going to get done.”

Each day, teachers could be asked to log attendance and personally welcome back students who returned after an absence, Fassbach suggested.

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Illustration of children walking over missing puzzle piece.
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Each week, they could call the parents of students who have been absent more than two days in the marking period. The key: Schools should give teachers ample coaching on what to say and an easily accessible resource to refer to during the conversations with prompts about how to start the conversation and show empathy, and the importance of being in class. It could also include suggested responses to common questions or comments from parents, he said.

Then, during staff meetings, school leaders and teachers should routinely review how parents responded and revise the resource.

If school leaders properly prepare teachers to handle these calls, they shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes weekly, Fassbach said. Given the importance of boosting attendance, he said, it’s crucial schools give teachers the time to do this work.

Students need to feel connected

There’s plenty of data that show more students are struggling now than before the pandemic hit—academically, emotionally, behaviorally, and socially.

But one of the key contributors to students’ absences is a feeling of disconnection from their school community, which includes classmates and teachers. About 40 percent of students reported feeling less connected to peers or adults in their school than before the pandemic in the recent EAB research.

To combat this challenge, schools need to be intentional about making connections with every student, Fassbach said. One way to do this is to start “relationship mapping.”

Each teacher can create a spreadsheet with their students’ names, and then show the “quality and depth of knowledge about each student” by putting a check mark in columns with a level of information (knowing the student’s name; if they give the student regular positive feedback; if they know two non-academic facts about the student). The teacher can be marked as a “trusted adult” if they have created a bond with that student or believe the student would come to them with a problem or concern.

The spreadsheet should also indicate how often the student is absent, such as if they’re consistently present, chronically absent, or trending toward being chronically absent.

Staff should review the results of that exercise and make a plan to fill the gaps. Sometimes this means assigning staff to deepen connections with students who don’t have a “trusted adult.”

School leaders should routinely check in with staff to ensure they’re working on building relationships with students and repeat the relationship mapping exercise later in the school year to check for progress.

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