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Smith-Griffin: Chronic Absenteeism Has Skyrocketed during the Pandemic. But Just Rewarding Students for Showing up at School Won’t Fix It

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For years, schools have drilled into parents that attendance is an important factor in student achievement. But amid the 2021-22 school year’s rocky trajectory, marked by staff shortages, quarantines, and political battles over health measures, the focus on rewarding attendance has resulted in confused, exasperated families.

Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10 percent of days in a school year for any reason, is at historic levels. In January alone, more than half of students missed at least three days of school, and around 25 percent missed over a week. That’s according to a New York Times survey of 150,000 parents, many of whom received mixed messages that emphasized the importance of attendance while urging students to stay home to prevent the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Persistent absenteeism has been an issue throughout the pandemic. Early data from California found that chronic absenteeism almost tripled from 11.2% in October 2019 to 27.4% in October 2021 — after the peak of the Delta variant. As schools scramble to reverse this trend, they must be careful not to fall back on traditional punitive responses.

Even during the pandemic, lawmakers have enacted compulsory attendance laws and charged courts with enforcement. District and school policies can create a culture of blame and shame by not accepting makeup work, barring students from participating in after-school activities if they are absent or by simply rewarding only perfect — not improved — attendance.

Even when absences are for “excused” reasons, like health or transportation issues, families can experience a lack of support that feels like pain on top of punishment. Considering how attendance issues disproportionately burden students from low-income families and communities of color, a lack of problem solving and support perpetuates education inequity at a massive scale. 

Over the last decade, family engagement leaders like myself have championed a shift in how our education system treats chronic absenteeism, from a punitive to an empathetic approach. Tiered intervention frameworks, like the one developed by Attendance Works, include everything from social worker visits to students’ homes to the friendly support of a 24/7 school-sponsored chatbot and have helped schools treat families as crucial components to their child’s success.

Heading into spring, COVID-19 cases are on the decline and mask mandates are lifting. In this new phase of reopening, how should school and district leaders revisit attendance policies to drive student success?

First, rethink some assumptions that can block even the most well-intentioned efforts to improve student outcomes: 

Learning happens only when students are physically at school. While academic progress has certainly suffered, many schools made a successful switch to virtual learning during the pandemic. The assumption that education only happens in the school building has now been proven false. But the flip side of that statement — When students are physically present at school, they are learning — is inaccurate as well for students in schools where the necessary conditions for learning have eroded. Many report anxiety about the return to the classroom or lack strong relationships with adults. In this environment, strictly attendance-based interventions may prove inadequate. 

Second, go back to the basic building blocks that ensure whole-child support. For these interventions to be effective, schools must have the following in place:

  • Access to food and transportation
  • Trusting student relationships with adults and peers
  • Mental and physical health supports
  • A welcoming school climate
  • Academic challenge and support
  • Active family engagement

Education leaders need to see dropping attendance and, even more alarmingly, enrollment, for what they really mean – a student population still reeling from the direct and indirect physical, social and emotional trauma of a pandemic and an overall breakdown of trust in public institutions, including schools. 

Third, consider your school’s touchpoints with families to help rebuild the trust of students and parents. Do teachers check in with positive messages and not just when a student has missed class? Are school communications empathetic and do they reach families in the way they prefer to communicate? Do school leaders consistently show families that they care about students’ well-being?

The way schools should improve attendance going forward is not by rewarding attendance. It’s by re-establishing a compassionate relationship with families and reassuring them that school is a safe, effective space for learning. 

Joanna Smith-Griffin is the CEO and Founder of AllHere, a company that combines conversational AI, behavioral science, and interactive nudges to foster attendance and engagement in K-12 education. She started her career in Boston’s public school system as a family engagement leader and middle school math teacher.

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