Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, chronic absenteeism increased substantially across the nation.
At least 10.1 million students were chronically absent during the 2020-21 school year, up from about 8 million students prior to the pandemic, according to the latest national data available from the U.S. Department of Education, as reported by Attendance Works.
“Students have had a sporadic school experience in the last two years,” said Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works. “What we know gets kids back to school is when they experience positive conditions for learning.”
Some states are leading the charge in tackling the problem.
In 2021, the Connecticut Department of Education launched the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program to help K-12 students struggling with absenteeism and disengagement during the pandemic. Among the 15 participating districts is Bridgeport Public Schools, which last year saw an average 1.65% increase in attendance among grades 3 to 8 compared to the 2020-21 school year and after the program's launch, said Carli Rocha-Reaes, the district’s director of school counseling and parent partnerships.
The district also increased attendance among English-language learners, students with disabilities and students who experience homelessness, she said.
“Where do you see most absenteeism? Where are the trends? We look at that, and then we take action across the district,” Rocha-Reaes said.
With that in mind, the following six tactics can help school districts rein in chronic absenteeism.
Provide transportation and a morning routine
A lack of safe and reliable transportation is a basic cause of student absences, so districts should make a concerted effort to provide that or work with community partners who can, Chang said.
Bridgeport Public Schools contracts private transportation for students experiencing homelessness who live outside the district, Rocha-Reaes said. “Wherever they are currently residing, transportation is arranged quickly for them.”
Districts can also give out bus or subway cards, or help students organize themselves in walking groups, said Michael Gottfried, chair of the policy, organizations, leadership, and systems division of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Another big plus is providing breakfast to students regardless of family income, which helps establish reliable routines for families and decrease absenteeism, Gottfried added.
Track the data and create attendance teams
Districts need to have a data gathering system to quickly spot absenteeism patterns early on, Gottfried said. “If you’re a teacher and you only see a student once a day for 55 minutes, they may only be going to your class, so you might not be aware they are chronically absent,” he said.
Bridgeport Public Schools has a district-wide attendance team that meets monthly to review attendance data through an asset- and strength-based lens, Rocha-Reaes said. The team includes the superintendent; the directors of the bilingual, social work and special education departments; school-based administrators for elementary, middle and high school; the coordinator for social emotional learning; and others.
The attendance team provides support and feedback to school-based attendance teams that include the principal, school counselors, teachers and other support staff, she said.
“We look for areas that we need to support, as well as areas that we see are positive deviants — where schools, administrators or teachers are showing significant increase in attendance rates — and we try to analyze what they are doing in order to share some of those best practices,” Rocha-Reaes said.
Create connections with and among students
Kids are motivated to attend school when they are socially and emotionally healthy, and when the school adults who surround them also exhibit those traits, Chang said. That creates a sense of connection and belonging, resulting in more participation and engagement, she added.
Having mentors — including teachers or any other adult at the school — can help students feel connected to their educational environment, particularly if they are of the same race as students in minority groups, Gottfried said.
Research shows it’s helpful to devise minority students’ class schedules so their first period is with same-race teachers, Gottfried said. “When the first teacher of the day looks like you, it makes a difference. Later in the day, it matters only a little bit.”
Additionally, students’ schedules could start with home room as another way to bake connection-building early into the school day, he said.
Chang pointed to the National Success Mentors initiative, which provides resources and training for mentors. In that program, mentors can be adults or peers, such as high school juniors and seniors trained to support incoming freshmen. “They talk about things like navigating classes and getting to know the school,” Chang said. “That has proven outcomes in reducing dropout rates and reducing absenteeism.”
Schools can create cohorts of students who meet regularly to help them build connections among themselves, Chang said. These groups could, for example, start in the 9th grade and through 12th grade to serve as a stable presence throughout students’ high school experience.
Schools can also create “lunch bunches” of students who eat together and are sometimes joined by a teacher or other school adult, Chang said. “On the foundational elements is building, in your design for your school, opportunities for kids to connect to each other.”
Forge relationships with parents
Chang advised doing home visits, both in-person and virtually, before the school year begins. “The notion is that you find out about the child’s hopes and dreams, you find out about their school experiences, and you establish a relationship that can continue the whole year,” she said.
At Bridgeport Public Schools, Rocha-Reaes said, the district’s home visit program started as a collaboration with a community based organization whose members performed the visits. The program was so successful in helping increase attendance that the district added 40 staff members — including teachers, administrators, and clerical and support staff — to also do home visits, she said.
“The whole idea is to build relationships with families, and connection, and work with them to identify additional support they might need,” Rocha-Reaes said. Among those support areas could be difficulty with transportation, lack of school uniform or housing instability.
In addition, research shows two-way texting is the best school communication method to keep parents connected, Gottfried said.
Bridgeport Public Schools uses the ParentSquare mobile app, which offers two-way translation in more than 100 languages and has been especially successful in helping reduce absenteeism among English language learners, Rocha-Reaes said. “We are making sure that all the information we send to families is accessible to them.”
Don’t be punitive
It’s critical to move away from punitive approaches to chronic absenteeism. Suspending students because they are absent is especially damaging, Gottfried said.
“If a student is missing school for various reasons, you don’t want to have them miss even more school and negatively affect their learning,” he said.
Bridgeport Public Schools has increased its work around restorative practices, Rocha-Reaes said. Fourteen of the district’s 35 schools have a restorative practices facilitator, and all administrators and new hires go through restorative practices training, with every staff member provided that opportunity.
When it comes to reengaging chronically absent Black and brown students, it’s especially important to create solutions centered around their specific challenges, Chang said. “There is a longstanding belief in this country that if kids don’t show up to school, it’s because their families don’t care. We’ve used a more legalistic approach, saying, ‘You should come to school — or else.’ But that doesn’t work, especially if you’ve experienced a lot of trauma.”
Get creative with half days
This year, Bridgeport Public Schools created “student success days” after seeing that attendance especially decreased during half days built into the schedule for professional development time, Rocha-Reaes said. This school year, eight of these days are planned into the schedule.
“We wanted to make half days more meaningful for students, so the focus of these days now is on supporting students outside of academics,” she said.
Students now spend half days working on “success plans” that include academic, career, social-emotional and personal goals, as well as completing activities like strength exploration assessments, Rocha-Reaes said. “We haven’t started data comparison yet, but we are getting a lot of great feedback from our school counselors that the students are really excited to be doing this type of work.”