Understanding a district’s chronic absenteeism data prior to the pandemic, including trends and interventions that were successful, can help schools better react to attendance challenges due to COVID-19, according to a new report from Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center.
The organizations found the groups of students with the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in 2017-18 — English learners and students on free meal programs and those with disabilities — are also the groups most impacted by the pandemic because of economic hardship, unequal access to school and poor health.
Determining what counts as attendance during remote and in-person learning — and consistently collecting and publishing the data — can help school leaders and other stakeholders determine the extent of the challenges and determine best approaches for interventions, the organizations say.
Taking daily attendance when students were physically in schools had become standard practice for the past 10 years, but COVID-19’s forced move to socially distanced classrooms, hybrid or all-remote learning formats upended those practices. In fact, most schools did not take attendance in the spring of 2020, the report says.
Although national-level chronic absenteeism data isn’t yet available for the 2019-20 school year, educators have expressed concerns about drops in student enrollment and engagement during the pandemic. “Addressing chronic absence is more urgent than ever,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works and the report’s co-author.
The groups’ review of 2017-18 data shows eight million students, or one in six, experienced some level of chronic absenteeism, and more than a quarter of schools across the country have either high (20% to 29%) or extreme (30% or more) levels of chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% or more of the school year for any reason.
An interactive map by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, featured in the report, shows absence rates in 2017-18 by state and district. Reviewing past attendance data can give schools insights on areas for improvement, the report said.
The report highlights efforts by the Connecticut State Department of Education to collect and publicly report on school attendance, which is the first known, publicly available state data on chronic absenteeism this school year, according to the report’s authors. The state had implemented several measures pre-pandemic and during the current public health emergency to consistently track and monitor attendance rates, including using attendance teams where absenteeism rates are high, the report said.
Chronic absences in Connecticut increased from 17.2% in 2019-20 to 36.1% this school year for English language learners and from 20.3% to 35.8% for students eligible for free meals. For all students, the chronic absenteeism rate was 12.2% last school year and is 21.4% so far this school year, according to the report.
The report also highlights best practices from schools across the country, such as Waterboro Elementary School in East Waterboro, Maine, where attendance teams proactively address student absences and create a culture of positive school-family connections about attendance concerns.