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5 Things You Need to Know About Student Absences During COVID-19

Absenteeism has long been a vexing and frustrating issue for educators. During COVID-19, the phenomenon has only grown more pressing.

Education Week conducted a nationally representative survey of 790 K-12 educators from Sept. 30 to Oct. 8 on several topics, including issues related to absences. The findings reflect major challenges for schools as well as opportunities to tackle urgent learning gaps that threaten to persist without swift intervention.

Here's what we learned from the survey findings. (Check out Education Week's How We Go Back to School series for guides on related topics such as overcome learning loss and addressing widening equity gaps.)

1. Student absences have doubled during the pandemic.

Perhaps not surprisingly, COVID-19 has led to an increase in the number of students who are absent on a typical school day. Educators who responded to this month's survey reported an average of 5 percent of their students were absent on a typical day before the pandemic. Currently, that average has increased to 10 percent. That means double the number of students are absent on a typical day compared with normal circumstances.

Before the pandemic, daily absenteeism rates were roughly equal among elementary, middle, and high school students. Now, though, the numbers suggest high schoolers are slightly more likely to be absent (13 percent on a typical day) than middle (11 percent) or elementary schoolers (9 percent).

2. Absences are up for students in full-time in-person instruction too.

The bulk of news coverage around student absenteeism this spring centered around the challenges of reaching students remotely. Some students were missing because they lacked reliable internet connections or a digital device at home, while for others the pandemic led to new work or child care responsibilities for students and their families that made attending school a lower priority than usual. Taking attendance is also more challenging in remote learning environments.

Now that some students have returned to school buildings while others remain at home, it's possible to examine whether the constraints of remote learning are among the primary factors that kept thousands of students from attending school this fall. 

The verdict? According to the survey, absenteeism rates are higher for schools and districts that have stuck with full-time remote learning, but they're also up in schools doing full-time in-person instruction or a mix of remote and in-person learning. In fact, absenteeism rates appear to have nearly doubled between this fall and before the pandemic across the board, regardless of whether remote learning is in place or not.

3. Schools should tread carefully on holding students accountable for unexcused absences.

Presented with a list of actions schools might take if a student has had unexcused absences this school year, more than three-quarters of educators who answered the EdWeek survey said a teacher reaches out to find out what's going on with the student or attempts to get in touch with the student's parents. One-fifth of educators said unexcused absences prompt the school to visit a student's home in an attempt to locate them.

The results are more diffuse when it comes to disciplinary actions. Only 29 percent of respondents said students might get a lower grade or lose participation points if they have unexcused absence. An even smaller group, 25 percent, said truancy officers get notified of a student's unexcused absences. Twelve percent said students might be retained in their current grade level if unexcused absences pile up.

4. Approaches to absenteeism differ depending on a school's location and socioeconomic makeup. 

Educators in suburban schools are more likely (26 percent) to dock points from a student's grade in response to unexcused absences than educators in urban schools (15 percent). Urban schools are more likely (55 percent) than educators in suburban schools (42 percent) or rural schools (34 percent) to connect absent students' families with social workers or digital devices to help address the root causes of absenteeism. 

Schools where more than half of students are enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs are more likely (17 percent) to hold students back in response to unexcused absences than schools where fewer than half meet that household income threshold (7 percent).

5. Very few students face suspension, expulsion, or legal consequences for unexcused absences.

Only 6 percent of educators said their schools would suspend or expel students for unexcused absences, and only 5 percent said students would face legal consequences for unexcused absences.

Still, that means some students could be subjected to harsh penalties for failing to attend school regularly, whether by not arriving at the school building or not logging into a video livestream. In one high-profile case this spring, a 15-year-old girl in Michigan went to jail for 78 days after a judge ruled her failure to complete online schoolwork represented a violation of her probation.

Some states, like Washington, have advised schools that attendance data should "not be used in a punitive manner," but rather to inform schools about students missing opportunities to learn. The nonprofit Attendance Works recommends using attendance data to "partner with families to develop plans reflecting a student's situation," including health, academics, and relationships.

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