During remote learning this spring, schools, children and parents were just trying to make it through to the end of the school year. With COVID-19 cases still high and no widespread vaccine expected for months, however, educators are approaching this fall very differently. It’s school as usual, just virtual – expectations are high, new content will be taught, work will be graded, and standardized tests may be required.
It’s also critical that schools support regular attendance and monitor absenteeism — whether children are learning in-person or virtually. Just like in a normal school year, identifying young students who aren’t present and engaging in learning will be important. We know that chronic absence in preschool and the early grades (defined as missing 10 percent or more of learning time) can lead to students not reading proficiently by third grade and being more likely to drop out of high school.
Done right, supporting and tracking attendance can be an equity strategy
There are many unknowns this year: learning may happen in classrooms, virtually, or a hybrid. Transitions in and out of classrooms may happen throughout the school year. We don’t yet understand the full extent of the impact of this crisis on student, family and educator mental health and well-being, student achievement, or educational equity.
What we do know is that this crisis is coming on top of what was already an inequitable educational environment, and now children, families, educators and administrators are facing additional barriers to successful learning and teaching. People have lost family and friends to this virus, school shut-downs in the spring mean that more children are entering school behind this year, and as continued protests over social injustice demonstrate, we continue to fail to address the systemic racism and bias that particularly oppresses children and families of color and limits access to quality education.
That makes supporting children and families to engage with learning this year all the more important. Addressing absence from learning environments can increase educational equity if we collect critical data, analyze it for patterns, develop early warning benchmarks, and use the data to ensure that every child and family has genuine access to the tools they need to successfully participate and thrive in these new learning environments.
What isn’t helpful is punitive approaches to absenteeism – like reporting parents to social services when children don’t show up online for class. Research has shown that these types of approaches are not effective, and common sense tells us that they make children and families feel that schools do not understand them or support them.
New attendance metrics proposed for virtual learning
Attendance Works, a national organization working to reduce chronic absence, has offered a new data framework for monitoring attendance whether school is virtual or blended. First, they suggest using chronic absence data from the first seven months of the 2019-20 school year to identify students and families who need extra attention now that schools are restarting. Those data can then be combined with data collected during virtual learning to assess who needs support.
In addition to chronic absence, Attendance Works recommends collecting data on four additional metrics: Contact, Connectivity, Relationships and Participation. Taken together, these metrics can help schools understand whether students are positioned to benefit from virtual and blended learning opportunities.
From Attendance Works:
The pandemic made clear that many schools lacked current contact information for their students and families. In some cases, families moved suddenly because of lost jobs or health concerns. In others, contacts were outdated.
As part of preparation for the 2020-21 school year, maintaining current contact information is essential should schools need to close due to new COVID-19 outbreaks or to provide basic supports to students and families.
To assist schools and districts in locating students and families, Attendance Works developed a list of ideas and strategies for locating those who have not been in touch with their schools during the pandemic. These strategies include reaching out through text, phone, email, social media, and mail, as well as contacting friends and neighbors. Once contact is made, educators should focus on addressing barriers to attendance rather than absenteeism per se.
Students and their families need internet access, proper equipment and training on utilizing online learning platforms to participate in distance learning. An estimated 9 million U.S. students do not have internet access at home; about 11 million don’t have access to a computer. The trends are worse in rural communities and for students living in low-income communities. School districts should determine which students have access and equipment and determine in partnership local and state government along with community partners how to access the resources to address gaps. Districts and schools should also assess whether school staff have access to needed technology and equipment as well as the skills to use them.
(NC has used buses as hot spots and other techniques to get access to more students.)
Research and experience show that strong reciprocal relationships with caring adults and educators are key to keeping students and families involved in school and learning. Schools and districts should invite student and family feedback on the relationship they have with their schools, including whether they are being invited to participate in decision making, whether there is at least one adult who they can go to for support, and whether they have access to opportunities that support enrichment, and other social interactions.
With support, teachers can make a huge difference by adapting traditional classroom relationship-building strategies to online settings. That can include taking attendance in a caring manner, noticing when students have been absent and welcoming them back, positive messaging, incentives, and social-emotional checkpoints—at either the classroom or individual-student levels. Teachers can also encourage connections among students in virtual classrooms, using group assignments and online chats to keep students engaged with each other. Teachers are especially well-positioned to monitor if students have responded to daily opportunities for interaction. Ideally, staff are connecting to students at least three times a week if not daily since the lack of response could be a sign that a family may be experiencing challenges that require support.
Schools can also monitor the extent to which families are responding to outreach and support including for example, picking up or receiving meals, responding to wellness checks, attending on-line office hours or participating in community events.
Schools and districts should track whether students participate in online classes or access other remote learning. Ideally, participation is more than simply measuring electronically logging on. It is measuring at a human level whether a student is showing up for an entire class, including for breakout sessions with classmates. Doing so acknowledges that even if a school has been able to contact a family, ensure connectivity, and support engagement and relationship building, it is still important to monitor if a student is participating, such posting to chats, showing up to pick up learning materials and showing up to submit complete assignments. If this does not happen, outreach is needed to determine why.
Additionally, schools and districts should within the first two weeks of school identify which students have not shown up for the 2020-21 school year. Prior analysis of chronic absence data has demonstrated that a low level of student participation in the first weeks of school are a strong predictor of later absenteeism. Utilize this information to organize an outreach effort to find students and families and understand why they are not participating.
As long as schools and districts should continue to monitor attendance and participation, they can continue to determine if students are chronically absent. Ideally, districts will monitor when students miss 10% or more of learning opportunities across all modalities – in person, synchronous virtual and asynchronous.
Attendance Works also shared some recommendations on how schools, districts, and local advocates and service providers can support attendance as school starts back, whether virtually or in-person. Particularly this year, engaging and supporting students and families is critical in order to improve attendance, nurture development and promote learning.