Pathways to Engagement: Covid-19 Recovery Through Attendance

Step 3: Craft Engagement Strategies

For each of the three phases of engagement — Nurture Belonging in School, Build Bridges to School, and Create Community at School — put in place a tiered approach. Attendance Works recommends a three-tiered approach that starts with foundational supports for the whole school, followed by prevention-oriented supports (Tier1), more personalized outreach (Tier 2) and intensive intervention (Tier 3).

Organizing by Phases

Since it is often helpful to lay out the tasks and activities in alignment with the rhythm of the school calendar, we recommend structuring your multi-tiered engagement plans according to the three phases below. And while starting early is helpful for building trust and creating a less hectic implementation process, leaders should keep in mind that it is never too late to begin engaging students and youth.

Below is a description of each of the three phases of engagement, links to sample engagement activities and a template to guide your own work. Follow these tips as you work through each phase:

  • First, work with stakeholders in prioritizing and designing strategies. Ensure that your team composition is reflective of the school community, has insights into the challenges that make it hard for students to attend, and brings a diversity of experiences and perspectives to the planning process. Promote inclusivity by hosting listening sessions with students and their families who struggle the most with attendance. Pay special attention to evidence-based solutions that work. 
  • Next, fill in the blank engagement template for your school or district. Choose which phase of engagement is most appropriate, whether the engagement effort is focused on the end of the school year, over the summer, or welcoming students, staff and families back in the fall. This will help you and your team to articulate the overall approach you will use for all students, while also helping to identify specific intervention and engagement strategies for groups of students.  
  • Finally, consider if additional tailoring of your strategies is needed given the realities of different student groups. Complete the template for each priority student group to clarify how each level of a multi-tiered support system might be further adapted to reflect the group’s particular challenges, strengths and realities. For example, see the Bridges to School PreK, K handout.  

Three Phases of Engagement

Spring: Nurture Belonging in School

While this year has been challenging for participation and attendance, we also know that drops in attendance are common toward the end of every school year and in the last few weeks of school. The shift to warmer temperatures, anticipating summer vacation and increases in asthma, allergies or other health problems can make attendance plummet. In the 2020-21 school year, keeping students engaged is arguably harder than ever given the economic and health challenges related to Covid-19, fatigue from studying online, and the challenges of maintaining supervision at home for distance learning. When educators anticipate and plan for this likely drop in attendance they can stem the decline. Scheduling engaging activities, personally connecting with students and their families who have struggled with attendance, and working with families, school staff and providers to address barriers to attendance can help prevent more serious absence levels.

Spring is also a critical time for promoting enrollment by creating opportunities for prospective students and their families to learn about the school community and what it offers. Enrollment campaigns are even more critical this year during the pandemic given data suggesting that large numbers of families with young students delayed registering for kindergarten and many older students may have moved to new communities and schools.

Use our Belonging to School multi-tiered sample of activities for actions that your school or district can take to create a feeling of belonging in the spring for current and prospective students, and that encourage daily attendance until the last day of school. Use this Belonging to School template to create your own approach.

Summer: Build Bridges to School

The summer months provide school leaders with the opportunity to take stock of the prior school year and plan for the coming school year. Summer bridge activities can create opportunities for students to play and socialize with peers, engage in fun learning activities and practice the routine of showing up in person to a classroom. These experiences may be especially important for young students who have never been in a formal classroom setting. The summer is a good time to conduct personalized outreach and home visits to students — and their families — who were chronically absent during the 2020-21 school year, when educators can check in on their well-being and ensure they have the support, and health and safety assurances, they need to return to school.

Additionally, schools should consider implementing programming prior to the beginning of school to allow students and families to meet school staff, to share resources and ensure that they feel safe and supported prior to the first day of school. Our Building Bridges to School multi-tiered sample activities handout offers ideas and actions that your school or district can take to encourage a successful transition back to school. Or create your own plan with this Building Bridges to School blank template. For incoming preschool or kindergarten students, download our Bridges to School PreK, K handout with sample activities.

Fall: Create Community at School

A successful return to school is essential to recovering from this past year’s unsettling social and health-related experiences. Working together, school leaders, educators and families can recover and thrive. The actions taken at the beginning of the school year will lay the foundation and ensure a successful return. This year it's critical to assure families that their school is taking every step possible to create an environment where everyone can be safe, healthy and learning. Focus on social and emotional wellness and address health and safety concerns. We’ve developed a new letter for principals or program directors to send home to every family at the start of the school year.

Bring in programming and partnerships that expand the capacity of the school to provide for physical, behavioral and mental health and wellness for students, family and staff. Reestablish the school community’s routines and rituals. Create structures that build and sustain relationships between students, families and educators, such as advisories, mentoring, ambassadors, councils and buddy systems. These relationships  can enable strong connections in remote and in-person settings. 

The first weeks back to school are an important time to strengthen and forge relationships, to rebuild routines and rituals or make new ones to create your community at school. Organizing mini-activities leading up to the first day of school, connecting with students and their families who struggled with attendance in the prior school year, and celebrating together are all ways in which we can rebound. In addition, using attendance and participation data can strengthen and ensure the success of the recovery process. Download our Create Community at School multi-tiered sample activities handout with ideas and actions that your school or district can take to create community at school. Or, create your own plan with this Create Community at School activity template. For incoming preschool or kindergarten students, download our Create Community at School for PreK, K and first grade handout with sample activities. 

All Year: Ensure Support in School

Keeping students engaged, learning and showing up to school is a year-long endeavor that should continue beyond the first few months of the new year. Make ongoing investments in engagement, relationship building, clear communications and using data to inform your strategies, programs and actions. Harvard’s Guide to Relationship Mapping can be used to ensure all students have a meaningful connection to an adult in the school community. 

A key to success is responding to chronic absence as soon as it begins and providing students with access to remote instruction if they are quarantined or face other attendance barriers. Given the increases in chronic absence occurring during the pandemic in many communities, review available supports to see if there are enough, and explore adding new ones if more are needed. Find ways to expand the most successful, such as offering virtual activities, increasing the number of people who can deliver them or supporting students in small groups rather than individually. Consider how these interventions can be adapted to address the strengths, challenges, home languages and cultures of the student groups that have high levels of chronic absence. All of these approaches can be supported using Covid-19 relief funds. 

Create an Implementation Plan 

What needs to be done, by whom and by when, for each strategy?

Once your team has filled out the template for the engagement strategy and has agreement on what efforts will be prioritized for your school or district, develop an implementation plan. Include who is responsible, a timeline with benchmarks for implementation, and identification of the necessary resources and support needed to implement each strategy. 

To make it easier to tailor plans to different student groups, use the grids on this page to create sample plans for specific populations. Ideally a school, district or community would create overarching plans and use this approach to consider how those resources must be adapted to the realities of groups hard hit by the pandemic and missed opportunities for school. See a list of possible student groups in Step 2: Review and Establish Priority Groups.  

Find proven strategies appropriate for each of the three tiers in the Attendance Playbook: Smart Strategies for Reducing Chronic Absence in the Covid Era, developed by FutureEd in partnership with Attendance Works. Download the Attendance Works Guide to Using the Attendance Playbook, a companion to the Attendance Playbook.