Key Concepts for Leveraging Chronic Absence During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Although chronic absence is being waived as an accountability metric in response to the coronavirus pandemic, monitoring when students miss too much school is more essential than ever. Broadly defined, chronic absence measures when students miss so much school they begin to fall behind, and indicates that they need additional engagement and support. Monitoring when students miss opportunities to learn  whether offered in person or remotely  is an invaluable tool for strengthening the efforts of educators, community partners and families to reduce the adverse impact of this pandemic on the country’s more than 55 million school children. 

Attendance Works has developed a multi-phase framework (see image below) to assist educators and their partners think strategically about supporting students and families from now through the time schools reopen. Most states and districts are now in the midst of Phase 2, Outreach After School Closure, or are entering Phase 3, Support and Engagement During Closure. How well schools connect with students and families during these two phases will significantly affect their readiness for Phase 4, Transition back to School.


Embedded across the four phases are strategies for using chronic absence and other data to address the deep systemic inequities exposed and exacerbated by the coronavirus. The crisis lays bare that many students and families are living paycheck to paycheck, with limited access to sufficient food, stable housing or health care and no savings to fall back on after a sudden loss in income. Distance learning also shines a spotlight on the many families who don’t own a computer or lack quality internet service so children can benefit from virtual learning. The disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on African Americans illustrates the long-term health effects of unequal access to resources due to racism.  Chronic absence has always been, and still is, a sign that students and their families struggle with these challenges. 

Some students and families have not been in touch with their schools during the pandemic. We've developed a list of ideas and strategies for making this connection. 

Strategies for Connecting with Students and Families

At its core, chronic absence measures when students miss so much school they are at risk of not learning to read by third grade, failing courses in middle school and dropping out of high school. 

A high level of chronic absence alerts schools, community partners and families that of one or more of positive conditions for learning are not in place. When these four conditions for learning – physical and emotional health and safety; a sense of belonging, connection and support; academic challenge and engagement; and adults and peers with social emotional competence – are in place, students are more likely to attend school. (Learn more about the connection between Conditions for Learning and chronic absence here.)

High chronic absence levels also signal the need for extra support to particular students or investments that are needed to address systemic problems. The best results occur when there is an intentional effort to avoid blaming students and families for the lack of attendance or participation.  

During this time of the coronavirus pandemic, we recommend three strategies that leverage the power of chronic absence and other metrics to reduce the adverse impact of this crisis.

Three Strategies
  • Leverage Existing Chronic Absence Data to Provide Additional Support: Many districts, schools and communities are stepping up to the challenge of offering meals and learning resources. Just as important is connecting with families and students, especially those who have not responded to outreach.

    Make sure to use chronic absence data, along with other information collected before schools closed, (i.e., special ed, health or housing), to help identify which students, populations and schools need more support, including food, physical or mental health resources or access to learning materials or technology. These data, along with information about ethnicity and home language, can be used to determine which staff might be best equipped to reach out to students and families. Once contact is made, the conversations with families should be about determining the need for additional support and an opportunity to problem-solve together, not to talk about chronic absenteeism.

    Districts should help schools document what is learned during this outreach. A centralized system that tracks the various needs and supports offered can also ensure families aren’t called multiple times to secure the same information.

  • Monitor Participation To Support Early Warning: This pandemic is expanding the notion of schooling to include learning in virtual and remote settings. Drawing from lessons learned from when we helped establish chronic absence as a national metric, we encourage states, localities and researchers to work together and identify appropriate measures for noticing when students are not engaging or participating in remote learning. This data can help us to identify new families who are struggling because of lost jobs or poor health related to the pandemic. Districts and states can and should experiment with different ways to measure lack of participation and later, use the experience to inform what could be adopted as a common metric.

  • Use Data to Strengthen the Transition Back to School: Schools will eventually reopen, but it won’t be “business as usual.” Transition plans and strategies to help students get back into the school routine will be even more essential. Chronic absence data collected before and after the coronavirus pandemic will be especially valuable because it is now one of the few consistent real-time data points still available to support data driven approaches to improving learning.

    Schools will need to monitor who doesn’t show up on the first day of school and use their chronic absence data (broken down by schools, grades, ethnicity, home language, special ed, etc.), to show situations that require immediate problem solving and support.

    When students return to class, schools will also need to adopt relationship building, trauma informed and restorative practices as part of their Tier 1, universal approach to supporting student behavior and engagement. Most students, teachers, and support staff will be entering schools with challenging and difficult experiences and many will have been out of the routine of school for months. Learn more about the Three Tiers of Intervention on our website.

These concepts now guide the development of Attendance Works materials. We will update this page as we learn more. Revised April 16, 2020.