Helping students rebuild consistent attendance habits has become an urgent priority for schools as absences surge, and the problem is threatening academic recovery efforts.
Rates of chronic absenteeism, in which a student misses 10 percent or more of school days, have as much as doubled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis by Attendance Works, a research and advocacy organization.
1. There is no ‘“one size fits all’” solution
It’s difficult for schools to move the needle on absenteeism because it’s affected by a range of out-of-school issues, including family circumstances, educators said.
This Oakland teacher said there is no single solution.
Attendance researchers agree: The job of improving attendance can’t be restricted to one single school department because everyone from the bus driver to the principal affects students’ engagement in school, they say.
Recognizing that dynamic, some schools have adopted comprehensive attendance strategies that include data monitoring and working with families and communities.
At West Seaford Elementary School in Seaford, Del., educators developed a communications plan that includes discussing the importance of attendance with parents as soon as they register their children for kindergarten. Parents are also given “myth busters” fact sheets that dispel myths about attendance, like the persistent belief that absences don’t matter if students get good grades.
2. Overly punitive approaches don’t work
Teacher Alice C. said that schools need more resources to support the individual student needs that contribute to poor attendance.
The biggest challenges are “lack of supports/resources to provide trauma and other mental health responses and individualized, relevant curriculum...and a culture that blames parents and punishes children,” she commented on our Facebook post.
Researchers have backed up those concerns about parental blame. Authors of a report released in March by Policy Analysis for California Education analyzed language about attendance in handbooks and websites from 40 randomly selected middle schools and high schools throughout the state. They found that racially segregated and high-poverty schoolswere more likely to use punitive language, like threats of court appearances or detention for students who miss too much school.
Meanwhile, more diverse schools and schools with fewer students in poverty “tended to adopt communication styles treating parents as partners in promoting attendance and even as valued clients,” the report found. One school’s attendance page even listed contact information for attendance clerks alongside a photo of a smiling hotel concierge.
3. Students need personalized attention
Students need more ongoing support, teacher Carrie W. said.
Facebook commenter Genevra V. agreed.
Schools “don’t have the capacity to sufficiently follow up and engage in family partnerships to reinforce attendance expectations and accountability,” she said. “Many of our families did not complete their own schooling past middle school and many of our secondary students have economic and family pressures to work, which sometimes conflict with school attendance.”
Unlike truancy, chronic absenteeism campaigns aim to help students avoid absences, including those that are excused for reasons like illness, rather than punishing them after they’ve crossed a legal threshold of poor attendance.
Schools can monitor absenteeism patterns early, paying special attention to students who’ve come close to missing 10 percent of school days at any point in the school year, Attendance Works has said.
And some schools have used that data to drive the individualized accountability Carrie W. suggested. Connecticut officials, for example, used $10 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to create a home visiting program for students with poor attendance patterns. Rather than offering tough talk, trained educators assessed students’ needs, offering solutions like referrals to mental health care or helping families create routines that can calm students’ anxieties about returning to school.
4. Students need to feel welcomed and engaged
So what does work? We asked readers in an unscientific poll on Education Week’s Linkedin page.
Most readers, 37 percent, said their school had offered attendance awards. That beat out the three other options in our poll: making parent outreach plans, creating attendance teams, and fixing transportation issues.
“You can do all of the above, but not see a sustained improvement in attendance,” said Melody O., a teacher education officer at the University of North Dakota. “What you have to do: Build community right away in the early grades. Continue throughout middle and high school. Connect the work that students are doing in the class to their own lives, hopes, and dreams. Make sure each child knows his/her strengths and how they can use them to achieve their goals. No small task but it’s the only way to make a sustainable improvement in attendance because students will WANT to be in class.”
Other readers stressed building a sense of belonging and healthy school culture. And a few criticized those popular school attendance awards.
While some schools have found success with incentives for students to improve attendance habits, awards for perfect attendance have fallen out of favor in many areas.
Researchers say such awards send the wrong message. Even one excused absence removes students from the pool of eligible recipients and takes away the incentive to show up, Hedy Chang, executive director Attendance Works, told Education Week in December.