With billions in federal Covid-relief dollars flowing into local school districts right now, policymakers and educators are contemplating a variety of strategies to help students catch up on the learning they’ve missed during the coronavirus pandemic.
The stimulus bill just approved by Congress requires states to spend money on summer learning and extended school day programs, among other approaches. But students won’t benefit from these programs—or the tutoring initiatives launching around the country—if the students don’t show up in the first place. Reducing chronic absenteeism, which has spiraled during the current crisis, must be an essential part of recovery efforts.
The data we’re seeing suggest that absenteeism—whether in person or on line—has risen to alarming levels in the past year. Connecticut records show, for instance that the share of students who are chronically absent—missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason—has nearly doubled this school year. An analysis of a sample of school districts in Ohio found chronic absence has risen to 40% in urban schools and 26% in rural schools during the first half of the current school year.
Even before the pandemic, one in six students was considered chronically absent across the nation, according to a recent analysis of federal data by Attendance Works and Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center. The early data we’re seeing suggest that figure could double this year, meaning one in three students would be missing too much school, with the highest levels in communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
Recognizing the importance of monitoring who is missing too much school, U.S. Education Department guidance released on February 22nd requires states to publicly report chronic absence data as a condition of waiving accountability requirements for the 2020-21 school year.
Rather than being considered a tangential issue, improving attendance is essential to getting students back on track for learning and back in the habit of showing up every day. So how can federal Covid relief aid help?
Reviewing the priorities that Congress has set, we see plenty of opportunities for schools, districts, and state agencies to use those dollars for improving attendance. The first wave of federal relief came in the CARES Act approved last March, and states and districts have already obligated much of the $13 billion set aside for K-12 schools.
The second round of funding, offering $54.3 billion for K-12 schools, was approved in late December, and school boards are already meeting to determine how to spend the dollars they’ll receive. State education agencies can keep up to 10 percent of the allotment, meaning that state boards of education are also drawing up plans. Governors get a smaller sum of discretionary funds as well.
A third round, with $126 billion for K-12 education, is part of President Joe Biden’s stimulus package just approved by Congress. Schools should see those dollars arriving by the end of the school year.
Of course, some of these dollars will go to keeping districts whole in places where state and local governments are experiencing steep revenue declines. But a key priority is helping students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, recover from learning loss during the pandemic.
That’s where attendance comes in. In fact, the package approved in December specifically mentions “tracking student attendance and improving student engagement in distance learning” as one approach to address learning loss, particularly for low-income children, students with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth.
Other allowable uses that connect with attendance include: providing principals and other school leaders with the resources necessary to address the needs of their individual schools, supporting parents and families, and addressing student mental health needs. Even improving ventilation systems could be a boon to attendance for students with asthma or allergies to mold and mildew.
Given the magnitude of the problem, districts and schools can’t solve this on a case-by-case basis. Instead they need to invest in broad strategies that work at scale to help students overcome barriers to attending class and re-engage with learning. Federal relief dollars could go toward:
- Improving data systems: Updated systems for tracking attendance and engagement could be a smart investment at the state or local level. A major challenge right now is that attendance data has historically been captured in a district’s student information system. But when learning is remote, the data on whether a student attended, logged in or submitted an assignment often exists elsewhere or is captured by a virtual platform such as Zoom. Upgrades could allow such data to be combined electronically, rather than manually, to avoid an undue data entry burden on teachers. Systems could also be updated to code whether students are learning in-person or remotely.
- Providing professional development: Covid relief aid from state or district sources can support training that equips district and school staff to use data, operate in teams, and offer a multi-tiered, problem-solving approach to reducing absences. Key to that approach is identifying the barriers causing students to miss school—and addressing them in ways that reflect students’ cultural, linguistic and economic realities. A strategy team at the school or district level can connect these efforts with school climate, behavior and academics.
- Expanding student and family engagement: Relief dollars could help facilitate the relationship-building activities that help every child and family feel a sense of belonging and connection to the school. That can take the form of teachers sending postcards or texts—or can be a personal call or visit to a family’s home to identify barriers to attending class. It can mean telehealth connections for students suffering physical or mental problems. The Attendance Playbook: Covid 19 edition shares these and other evidence-based practices.
- Tailoring individual interventions: Some students will need extra support to recover from the pandemic. Relief aid can pay for tutoring or mentoring programs, which can catch kids up and create the kind of personal connection that research has shown leads to better attendance. These efforts can include creating individual attendance plans and mental health supports.
- Community schools: Districts could use federal dollars to create community schools, which pull together nonprofit organizations and local agencies to support disadvantaged students. These programs often provide extended learning and summer programs the federal bill is advocating. And they have proven effective in reducing absenteeism.
By Hedy Chang, Executive Director of Attendance Works, and Phyllis Jordan, Editorial Director of FutureEd.
This blog post was originally published on the FutureEd website.