School & District Management

Why Students Ghost the Day After Halloween (And What Schools Can Do About It)

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 27, 2021 4 min read
Dressed in his dinosaur Halloween costume, Martin, 4, attends a class Zoom for his public school prekindergarten class, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Washington. Martin chose to be a "deinonychus" for Halloween, and wore the costume in celebration the day before the holiday.
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Attention, all you minders of little witches and ghouls out there this Halloween.

In addition to the dangers of “Squid Game” costumes, too much candy corn (yuck!), and scary clowns, there’s another thing to watch out for: High number of students tend to do a little ghosting the day after trick-or-treating.

In Los Angeles, Nov. 1 is often the day with the district’s second-highest count of absent students—bested only by the day before winter break, said Michael Romero, the regional superintendent of Local District South, which serves more than 85,000 students.

“Kids are out later, they’re eating a heck of a lot of candy, and there is a likelihood that if a kid is struggling or griping about going to school, that maybe the family says, ‘Hey, stay home today,’” Romero said. “And if it is a kid who struggles with attendance, with chronic absenteeism, it’s just more likely that they don’t come back.”

One day out is not typically a major cause for concern, but skyrocketing rates of absenteeism during the pandemic meant large numbers of students didn’t make as much academic progress last year as expected.

And heading off a day out is especially important for those students who’ve already had spotty attendance this fall.

Here’s what we know about holiday absenteeism and some ways to counter it.

Absenteeism fluctuates in seasonal ways

Absenteeism is still a relatively new focus for educators and researchers, but gradually they’re learning more about what kinds of seasonal patterns and schedules seem to influence it.

Using school year 2018-19 data from the Detroit district, Wayne State University researchers found that absenteeism in that district was highest the day before Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, and in the final week of the school year. (The day after Halloween wasn’t particularly high—but that year, it fell midweek, when absences in general tend to be lower.)

Generally, research also shows that absenteeism rates vary by grade level and other characteristics. In Romero’s region, it is highest for kindergartners and 9th graders, and that U-shaped pattern tends to show up in national data too.

Not all absenteeism is the same. There’s some indication that unexcused absences rather than excused ones are what’s behind poor academic results for students who miss a lot of school.

But for those who are already in danger of being chronically absent—generally defined as missing 10 percent or more out of the school year—it’s critical to avoid any interruption in learning, said Sarah Lenhoff, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at Wayne State University, who co-wrote the Detroit study.

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Student Zikirah Skinner runs towards Lisanne Brown, dressed up as a Panther, the mascot of William Dick Elementary, during a surprise visit to her North Philadelphia home.
Zikirah Skinner runs toward an educator dressed as the panther mascot from her school, William Dick Elementary, during a surprise visit to her home in north Philadelphia to celebrate high attendance.
Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

“A regular kid who’s not missing a lot of days and is absent Halloween or Thanksgiving, that’s probably not going to make much of a difference. But for a kid who is on the borderline of being chronically absent, or has a lot of scattered absences throughout the school year, having a culture of missing around a holiday can really add up,” she said.

While there doesn’t appear to be research specifically focused on the day after Halloween, observers say they’ve seen the same pattern as in Los Angeles.

And a teacher in the Oakland district said she used to routinely schedule parent-teacher conferences on Nov. 1, since so many students were likely to be absent.

How to prevent students from ‘ghosting’

The good news is that districts don’t have to invent a lot of new strategies to head off absences on Nov. 1. And they don’t have to get in the way of some fun holiday cheer. They’ll just want to lean into their strategies a little bit more this week.

Romero’s region uses a three-pronged strategy to address absenteeism: Calling attention to the importance of coming to school in most communiqués, phone calls, and outreach to parents whenever a child is absent, and a tailored subset of approaches to students who have racked up numerous absences. Administrators amplify those, especially the first one, around Halloween.

“What we’ve done for the last couple of years—and it’s helped a bit, but it doesn’t solve the problem—is consistent messaging to parents, like a drumbeat,” he said. “We send flyers, we send reminders, we send messages through Blackboard Connect,” a course-management software.

Here are some other strategies to try.

  • Start communicating with families now. It’s generally best to get ahead of a holiday and remind families through multiple communications—flyers, emails, text “nudges”—that attendance is expected on Nov. 1. The most effective approaches tend to be personalized by principals, rather than from the central office. (Romero cites one of his principals, who actually visits each classroom in her building to remind students to bring their flyers home.)
  • Don’t send mixed signals about attendance. If you plan assemblies, parties or other non-academic events in the school day—as often happens around a holiday—it can send a signal that it’s OK to skip. “If kids or families get the message you’re not going to be doing academic work, or it’s going to be kind of an informal day, they will do something else with their time,” said Lenhoff.
  • Create incentives for attending Nov. 1. Generally, Romero said, carrots work better than sticks. Try making Nov. 1 a spirit day in which kids get to wear their favorite jerseys, or launch a contest awarding a small prize to the classroom that has perfect attendance.
  • Use it as a professional development or other day. Districts can choose to use the day for PD or parent-teacher conferences if they feel high student absences are unavoidable.

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