Learning disruptions due to Covid-19 have driven home that paying attention to attendance and chronic absence is essential to ensuring an equal opportunity for students to learn, thrive and achieve their full potential. Chronic absence data is one of the best available resources for identifying which students have lost out most during the pandemic and ensuring they are prioritized in recovery planning.
This blog describes the unsettling scale and scope of the current attendance challenge, explains why chronic absence matters for states as they implement their American Rescue Plan Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ARP ESSER) plans, and shares how to leverage Attendance Works resources.
State departments of education are especially well-positioned to make a difference with attendance and chronic absence data because they can identify patterns and trends that need solutions at scale and convene key stakeholders to develop and implement meaningful solutions. Improvement strategies informed by attendance and chronic absence data are invaluable for rebounding from the adverse impact of Covid-19 and reducing educational inequity.
Challenging and Dramatic Increases in Chronic Absence and Educational Inequity
Even before the pandemic, one in six students was considered chronically absent across the nation. Current levels could be much higher especially in schools or districts with high concentrations of students who live in poverty. Research shows that students who are chronically absent (missing 10% or more of school, for any reason) can translate into students entering kindergarten and 1st grade with lower readiness skills, having difficulty learning to read by third grade, higher suspensions and lower test scores in middle school, and serious challenges in graduating from high school. The adverse impact is greatest for students living in poverty who are less likely to have the resources to make up for lost learning time in the classroom and more likely to experience multiple systemic barriers to getting to school.
Early data for the 2020-21 school year, show chronic absence is more of a challenge this year than ever before. Connecticut data reports show, for instance, that more than 20% of all students are chronically absent compared to 12 % last 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. Chronic absence is especially high among populations hard hit by Covid-19 (e.g. students challenged by poverty, experiencing homelessness, who speak languages other than English, who have disabilities as well as children who are Black, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander.) Rhode Island data also reveals that students struggling with poor attendance are now missing significantly more days than in prior years.
Implications for State Departments of Education Covid-19 Recovery Efforts
State Departments of education can help by encouraging the collection and use of chronic absence and attendance data. These data can inform broader plans to promote recovery and acceleration efforts and reduce educational inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. States are responsible for the submission of accurate, consistent and quality attendance data across modes of instructions and localities and then making that data publicly available. States can then use that data to notice and address when particular districts, schools, student groups or communities are experiencing attendance challenges.
Although the collection of attendance data for distance and hybrid learning has been inconsistent across and within states, chronic absence data is one of the few forms of data continuously collected over the past year. 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 disaggregated chronic absence data as a condition of waiving accountability requirements for the 2020-21 school year.
Volume 2 of the US Department of Education’s Covid -19 Handbook clarifies that funding under the ESSER, ARP and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund can be used to implement data-driven strategies to address chronic absenteeism. Strategies listed include outreach to students and families, accelerating learning for students with significant amounts of lost instructional time during the Covid-19 pandemic, and other intensive social, emotional, mental health and academic supports. Funds can also be used to develop data quality systems that can guide local education agency decision-making around which strategies to implement. Find more details, especially on page 38, of the Covid-19 handbook.
States should consider drawing upon Covid 19 relief funds to invest in improving data accuracy and data systems. They can build in time to work with districts to improve the integrity of the data before reporting them publicly. Public reports should be transparent about any limitations (e.g. missing data, inconsistent definitions, etc.) If the limitations make public reporting inadvisable, then states should establish technical advisory committees to address the emerging data challenges and take steps to correct them before the beginning of the next school year.
Monitoring and addressing chronic absence is critical to quality implementation of State ARP ESSER plans which are due on June 7th. Chronic absence is relevant to every domain of work and can inform state Covid-19 recovery efforts:
- Assessing Current Status and Needs: Elevated rates of chronic absence data can help to identify students most affected by the pandemic while higher levels of attendance among student populations disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 could help to detect practices that more effectively support students during the pandemic. In fact, ARP ESSER requires sharing publicly data on attendance along with modes of instruction and enrollment by June 21, 2021.
- Safely Reopening Schools: Monitoring attendance and chronic absence for in-person learning versus distance learning settings can offer invaluable feedback on whether schools are successfully mitigating community spread of Covid-19 and if families are assured enough about the safety of in-person learning to send their children to class.
- Planning for Use and Coordination of Funds: Data on which student groups and schools have experienced high levels of chronic absence can help states prioritize stakeholder outreach and consultation to ensure their plan addresses the concerns and realities of students and families who have struggled during the pandemic.
- Maximizing State Level Funds to Support Students: Chronic absence data can be used to identify which districts and schools should be encouraged to expand summer learning, mentoring and comprehensive after school programs. Attendance data can also be used to evaluate effectiveness.
- Supporting Local Education Agencies in planning for and meeting student needs: States can and should build LEA capacity to use chronic absence and attendance data to address educational inequity and assess whether interventions are having the intended impact. This involves ensuring LEAs have the systems as well as staff capacity to collect, analyze and interpret data and take a positive rather than punitive approach to responding to absences.
- Supporting the Educator Workforce: Reducing chronic absence requires building the capacity of educators to take a multitiered approach that begins with prevention and ensures attendance is addressed alongside efforts to improve school climate, behavior and academic achievement. Educators must understand how they can work together across departments to support prevention and early intervention as well as how to enlist support from other faculty (nurses, counselors, social workers, etc.) when needed.
- Monitoring and Measuring Progress: Chronic absence is a widely accepted and respected opportunity to learn indicator. As a result of the shift to distance and hybrid learning, states must invest in the development of attendance policies and systems that can examine attendance trends for each learning mode, establish more consistent definitions of a day of attendance and absence and expand the measures used for early warning purposes.
Leveraging Attendance Works Resources
As states move forward with implementation and their support of LEAs, we encourage you to draw upon Attendance Works resources: