Addressing Chronic Early Absence: A Critical Component of COVID-19 Recovery

Q&A with Hedy N. Chang, Executive Director at Attendance Works and Louise Wiener, Senior Fellow at Attendance Works
Blog Post
Aug. 30, 2021

In our recent toolkit published with EducationCounsel, “A Toolkit for Effective and Supportive Transitions for Children, Families, and Educators in Fall 2021 and Beyond,” we encouraged state and school district leaders to use attendance data to help identify challenges for student populations or students living in a particular neighborhood and work with families to develop solutions to get students into the classroom. We wanted to dig a little bit deeper into attendance so we asked Hedy Chang and Louise Wiener from Attendance Works to help us do that. In their responses to our questions below, Chang and Wiener explain why addressing challenges to attendance is so important and offer some potential solutions and resources.

Why is addressing chronic absenteeism so important, especially as schools reopen this fall?

Starting in preschool and kindergarten, chronic absence (missing 10 percent of the school year or just two days each month for any reason) is an indicator that students are off-track for learning. Chronic absence, starting with entry to school, is both a leading indicator and cause of educational inequity. Left unaddressed, high rates of chronic absence predict adverse consequences for learning. Chronically absent kindergartners are less likely to read on grade level, more likely to continue to be chronically absent, and more likely to be retained. The gaps grow over time.

Students who live in poverty suffer the most. They are more likely to experience systemic attendance barriers (including inadequate access to quality health care, unreliable transportation, and unstable housing) that are hard to resolve and can last multiple years. And families living in low-income communities are less likely to have resources at home to make up for lost learning time in the classroom.

During this past year, our youngest children have missed out on significant amounts of school. Many simply did not enroll or attend preschool or kindergarten.

How do you think schools and districts can best use chronic absence data? How should they engage with families with young children around these data points?

Chronic absence data is an invaluable tool for districts, schools, preschools, and communities to a) determine which families should receive additional outreach and support and b) obtain real-time feedback on the effectiveness of school reopening.

If a student or group of students is chronically absent, it signals the need for additional outreach and support. In-depth conversations with families can clarify the underlying barriers to attendance and identify supportive actions families and schools can take together to resolve issues, whether community-related (i.e lack of access to health services, unreliable transportation, unstable housing, unsafe paths to school etc.) or school-related (biased school discipline practice, bullying from other children, teacher turnover, etc.). Consulting directly with families is key to finding solutions that are practical, make a difference, and ensure that parents and caregivers are aware when their children are missing so much school that they are academically at risk.

Chronic absence data helps preschools and elementary schools partner with families to identify and address systemic challenges as early as possible during the school year. If large numbers of children from a particular school, grade, or student group do not show up regularly during the first weeks of school, it is a red flag that one or more key positive conditions of learning may not be in place for them. It could, for instance, mean families are concerned that school doesn’t offer a safe and healthy environment. Parents and caregivers of chronically absent children may sense a lack of connection, belonging, or support. Some may feel alienated or even pushed out by ineffective and biased disciplinary practices or a lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate teaching strategies. Analyzing trends by grade, ethnicity, neighborhood, income, disability, and home language in the early grades can help detect existing inequities which require programmatic or policy solutions.

Missing school is also a sign that additional steps should be taken to ensure that students and families feel engaged by the learning and the relationship-building opportunities offered at school. It indicates an even greater need for fun, personalized, enriching learning opportunities that can spark the love of learning whether they are offered as part of classroom instruction, two-generation family activities, high-quality intensive tutoring, or expanded learning programs. Offered early in the school year and a child’s school career, such support could help get a child back on the path to early school success before more expensive remediation might be required.

What do we know about the likely levels of chronic early absence during the coming school year?

Unfortunately, chronic absence will be a significant challenge in the coming school year. Prior to the pandemic, 8 million students, or one out of six students missed 10 percent or more of school. For example, data from this past year from Connecticut, California, and a cross section of districts reveal that chronic absence increased dramatically starting in the early grades. At the same time, we experienced significant drops in kindergarten enrollment across the country.

This fall, levels are likely to be even higher. The surge in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant is going to increase the number of students who are absent, especially in the elementary grades, given the lack of vaccines for younger children. Students with COVID-19 must stay home for their own safety and for the health and well-being of the entire school community.

The current situation is increasing “enrollment hesitancy” and nervousness about attending in person. Families who have experienced more illness and death from COVID-19, or those that distrust public health and educational systems, are especially reluctant to send their students to school without strong assurances of health and safety.

Beyond the current health concerns, it also often takes a while for families with young students to get used to a new environment and establish a regular routine of getting to school. It takes time to arrange daily transportation and backup support so children can attend class even when families face challenges. These adjustments will be even harder this year when so many students have been out of the routine of in-person school for as much as 18 months, public transportation may have declined during the pandemic, and routines could easily be disrupted by a need to quarantine.

What are the implications of the high levels of chronic absence for practice and policy?

All of this has implications for how schools, districts, and communities can support the youngest students and their families in the coming school year. It makes for an even more urgent need for:

  1. Clear communications with families about health and safety measures as well as keeping them apprised about the latest data about COVID-19 transmission. Such information should be current, available in home languages, and shared by trusted educators and community members.
  2. Authentic partnerships between school staff and families through in-person and virtual communications. Two-way relationships are critical for engaging families in learning. Schools can offer resources to rebuild attendance routines, share concerns about absence, and work together with families to solve barriers to attendance. Schools can also draw upon resources available from Attendance Works like our handouts for families and student success plans as they forge these partnerships.
  3. Attention to creating a warm, welcoming, trauma-informed school climate built on relationships and positive problem-solving, not punitive action. Educators can start the year off with playful activities that encourage students and family learning to foster warm, trusting relationships between home and school and support collaborative problem-solving. Districts and schools should also invest in personnel and professional development to engage in restorative practice and avoid problematic or biased disciplinary actions. Such investments are essential given the traumatic experiences some children have faced during the pandemic, the anticipated high level of classroom absenteeism and churn, and the large numbers of children who have had little opportunity to be in a classroom with other children.
  4. Continuously monitoring attendance, chronic absence, and other metrics to target outreach and engage in continuous improvement. See our Expanded Data Framework which recommends examining the availability of working contact information for families, digital connectivity, attendance (remote and in-person), and relationships.

What are you most concerned about this fall? What are you most optimistic about?

We are deeply concerned that as COVID-19 continues to spread it will lead to students and families with the least resources facing even greater health, economic, and educational challenges. Addressing these inequities requires thoughtful planning and intensive relationship-building to overcome barriers of distrust. Inequities will become even greater if we do not reflect on the lessons we learned while students learned remotely, and accept the reality that we must plan for alternative learning opportunities if in-person instruction is once again disrupted.

We are very optimistic about the resiliency, dedication, and innovation of families, community partners, and educators who persevered over the past school year. Together we can leverage their experiences and use this new school year to build back better. We can supplement current in-person learning and expand virtual strategies for partnering and working together to support our children. We must tap into this knowledge and wisdom.

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