At this time halfway through the school year, with all the deadly dull scheduling and paperwork squared away, school administrators’ jobs usually begin to resemble what most people already think we do all day: shaking down passless students in the hall, scowling through a teacher’s lesson from the back of her room, or imperiously directing a fire drill. But if other assistant principals’ first semesters have been anything like mine, they’ve spent countless hours in their offices with their masks pulled down to their chins, squinting at spreadsheets, managing what used to be a routine, hum-drum task: taking attendance.
Before the pandemic hit and schools were pulled unwillingly and with no preparation into the virtual realm, attendance was simple. In New York City, where I work, teachers filled out a bubble sheet for each class, and a secretary scanned them into a machine. Now, with the vast majority of our students “full remote” and with staff scattered to the four winds, teachers do attendance online (with the same begrudging spirit and occasional forgetfulness, I might add), and I sort the marks and upload the information myself. And though my state’s department of education’s definition of “present”—students are considered present if they are “virtually present for the synchronous or asynchronous instruction”—invites a generous interpretation, my school has done an excellent job of staying true to what the spirit of being “present” actually is.
Our attendance isn’t great, though. Absences are way up, not only at my school but across the city. In a normal year, city schools average 92 percent attendance. On Oct. 26, our mayor released attendance data since school opened in the fall that put average attendance at about 85 percent. That may not seem like a dramatic decrease, but even as a former English teacher who occasionally counts on his fingers, I know that’s almost double the number of students who are absent from school each day.
On top of that, there’s a new attendance problem, albeit one that’s familiar to those of us who attended high school before school shootings turned once-porous campuses into heavily monitored fortresses: skipping class. Last year, if you’d told me one of my students had been caught smoking in the parking lot during second period, I would have laughed in disbelief, but now that students are at home on their computers, it’s easier to skip class than it is to go. All you have to do is … not click the button to join your virtual class.
This is a problem because—brace yourself—when students don’t go to school, they don’t learn.
But the self-evidence of that conclusion doesn’t assuage my worries have about the metastasizing problem of pandemic-related absenteeism in all its forms. Nor does it provide any clarity on how to solve the problem, especially when, with COVID-19 burning through this country at a rate of more than 200,000 cases a day, it’s not pessimistic to assume we’ll be full remote for the rest of the year and students will continue to just not click the button.
The pandemic has taken our carrots away. While students mostly come to school to see friends, they also walk through those doors each day, whether they realize it or not, for the attention and security the adults in the building provide, as well as the vague feeling that with every sonnet, Appomattox, and hypotenuse they learn, they’re inching toward something positive in their future. They viscerally understand that there’s a purpose to the tedium. But this can only be internalized when they’re in the same place, at the same time, with the same people, every day.
The sticks have been yanked out of our hands, too. From a grade standpoint, my state’s new education department policy—similar to many others’ around the country—dictates that students’ grades cannot be adversely affected by attendance. Students cannot be given failing grades, either. Anyone who has worked with adolescents for longer than one day knows you only get so far with minor penalties (say, detention) and incentives (homework pass!), but that also, paradoxically, serious penalties (being held back a year) and serious incentives (field trip) go a long way in encouraging most students to work hard and do the right thing most of the time.
The net result, then, is a “hold harmless” approach that protects the student in the short term but—knowing what we do about the compounding effect of missing school and how critical school is especially for low-income students—puts a big question mark over their future chances at success.
Who is to blame? Not our occasionally truant students for whom the major, immediate incentive for going to school has evaporated and who can be forgiven for not wanting to sit on Zoom for 5-6 hours every day, which few adults, by the way, can bear. Not the parents, who have other children to wrangle, and work full time, are stressed out, and can be forgiven for expecting their 16-year-old to pull it together enough to get to class (read: click the button). Not the decisionmakers at the district level, who have made the ethical decision not to hold students and families accountable for pandemic-related tragedies outside their control or for their crummy Wi-Fi.
We educators, as usual, are left to solve an education problem whose roots are social. We are a climate scientist staring at a crack in a glacier; we didn’t cause it, we know why it’s there, there’s not much we can do about it, but we know it’s real bad, and we have to figure out what to do.
So we do what we can with what we have. We launch a blitzkrieg of phone calls home that would embarrass a presidential campaign. We send out weekly attendance certificates with silly GIFs meant to encourage (“You’re the CAT’S PAJAMAS!”) or gently admonish (“You missed 10 classes! No bueno!”) We plead with the students themselves. We text them each morning. When they tell us they’re logging on to Zoom, we log on, too. And we wait.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as We Must Talk About Remote Student Absenteeism