Key Concepts for Leveraging Chronic Absence During the Coronavirus Pandemic

During the coronavirus pandemic, taking attendance daily and monitoring when students miss too much school is more essential than ever. 

The pandemic has exposed the harsh reality 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 Black, Latinx and Native American communities illustrates the long-term health effects of unequal access to resources due to racism.

Monitoring when students miss opportunities to learn – whether offered in person or through distance learning – 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

As schools and communities develop and implement their plans for addressing the academic and social impact from disrupted learning, putting in place meaningful ways to engage students and their families is critical to addressing the significant absenteeism, enrollment declines and educational inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. Data on chronic absence and lack of participation in school are clear indicators of where to invest outreach and support. See Pathways to Engagement: A Toolkit for Covid-19 Recovery Through Attendance, which offers a framework, tools and resources for how to forge pathways to engagement, especially for those who have lost out on significant instructional opportunities during the pandemic.

Keep in mind that federal Covid-19 relief funds can be used to support these kinds of activities. For more information on how to use federal dollars for attendance and engagement activities, read this blog post.

At its core, chronic absence measures when students miss so much school they are at risk of not being prepared for kindergarten, 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 one or more 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 competency – are in place, students are more likely to attend school. (Learn more about the connection between conditions for learning and chronic absence here.)

Monitoring Attendance in Distance Learning

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

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 Attendance Data to Identify Where to Provide Additional Support: Chronic absence data, along with other information collected before schools closed, (i.e., special ed, health or housing), shed light on 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 absences.

    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: The 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 have been consulting with states, localities and researchers to identify appropriate measures for noticing when students are not engaging or participating in remote learning. The result is a new data framework which recommends additional metrics, (contact, connectivity, relationships and participation) for the purposes of establishing early warning systems and informing program and policy decisions. Together with chronic absence, these metrics help reveal what challenges need to be addressed to ensure an equal opportunity to learn. See diagram below.

    Given the unprecedented nature of the current situation, we also advise against using attendance or participation data for the purpose of allocating funding, taking legal action or reestablishing high stakes accountability at this time. Rather, districts and states can and should invest in developing and researching the best ways to measure lack of participation, and then later, use the experience to inform what should be adopted as a common metric.

  • Use Data to Strengthen the Transition Back to School: The reopening of schools for SY 2020-21 won’t be “business as usual.” Transition plans and strategies to help students get back into the school routine will be even more essential. Absenteeism (chronic absence, no-shows, low participation during the spring, etc.) 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.) and other metrics to show situations that require immediate problem solving and support. For help with taking a data informed approach to the transition to school, see our Transition Planning Guide and Worksheets.

    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. For more information about effective tiered strategies, see the Attendance Playbook: Smart Solutions for Reducing Chronic Absence in the Covid Era and the accompanying guide to implementation.


These concepts now guide the development of Attendance Works materials. We will update this page as we learn more. Revised November 20, 2020