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Responding to Absenteeism During the Coronavirus Pandemic & Beyond

(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question of the week is:

What are effective strategies—both schoolwide and individually—to handle student absenteeism?


It's a little bit ironic to publish a series on absenteeism at the same time that most schools are closed because of the coronavirus. 

But students not being "present" when teaching takes places was a problem before the pandemic, is an issue now when many of us are doing remote learning, and will be one after this crisis has passed.

Though the original responses to this question were written prior to school closures, most contributors have made significant modifications to their answers over the past month.

Today, Janice Wyatt-Ross, Dr. Rhonda Neal Waltman, Dr. Felicia Darling, and Maurice McDavid contribute their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Janice, Rhonda, and Maurice on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

"Connection before consequence"

Janice Wyatt-Ross is the program director for a dropout-prevention/re-engagement center in Lexington, Ky. She and her husband of 23 years are the parents of two daughters:

Coronavirus Modification to Article:

As I currently reflect on this question, I am now considering how absenteeism is being addressed amid school closings and a worldwide shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more than ever, I find it important to connect with students.  We are conducting virtual meetings, participating in group messaging, sending emails, mailing postcards, and calling students and families by phone. Nothing can take the place of physical interaction; however, I take it upon myself to model connectedness and maintaining positive interactions with staff, students, and their families. Students are not penalized for failing to login to virtual meetings. When students are "absent" from those virtual meetings, someone on staff will reach out by phone. Some students do not have internet access that is readily available.  Those phone calls also serve as progress monitoring to account for the amount of school work a student has been able to accomplish on the hard-copy packets that were provided.  As teachers all around us are scrambling to provide what they are calling distance learning, we refer to it as Off-site Educational Programming (Off-site).  We have one staff member dedicated to monitor student-activity levels.  When a student's activity diminishes, we can immediately address the change in behavior.

As a rule of practice, I stress connection before consequence.  I remind students all the time that we value them more than we value a rule that was broken. Right now, during this call for quarantine or as we refer to as #healthyathome, I value connection with students over completion of work.  They are completing work, and we are connecting. We take it one day at a time.

Original Article

 As the administrator for a dropout-prevention center, I regularly work with students who have a history of absenteeism. One thing that we have established is a culture of care and concern.  Students would regularly miss school because they missed the bus.  Some missed intentionally; others, in actuality, really did miss the bus.  Once we realized a pattern of behavior, we took that excuse away.  We created the expectation that students needed to be in school.  If they missed the bus, they were instructed to call the school, and someone would pick them up and bring them to school. 

We also conduct home visits if students miss more than two days per week.  We call parents, we even call students.  Several students have my Google voice/personal cell number, and I send them a text message if they are missing from school.  I send them emails and direct message those that follow our social-media accounts. 

A big part of absenteeism is that students do not feel connected.  Many of them are not involved in sports due to low grades.  They don't have a support group and are often only addressed due to misbehavior. Students have told us that they want someone to connect with.  They want someone to hold them accountable. Every student is assigned a staff member Success Coach.  All staff members are expected to serve as Success Coaches.  These coaches monitor student progress, attendance, and behavior.  They check in with students daily just to acknowledge the student and to put a finger on the pulse of their emotional well-being.  It is all about relationships.

Students have often expressed that they were bored in their previous school settings.  Think about going to school every day with the same schedule, doing the same thing day after day.  Compare the programming at the elementary level with that of the secondary level.  Elementary students take field trips, have recess, enjoy guest speakers, science fairs, schoolwide programs, etc.  Many high school students do not enjoy the luxury of attending field trips. We are intentional about taking breaks during the day, having guest speakers every week, and taking field trips to places in our local community.  One community partner donated a plot of land for use to cultivate a garden.  Our garden project is a big hit. Although we cannot provide every imaginable experience, we try to incorporate as much variety as we can to expose students to things they like and to introduce them to new experiences.

We have recently engaged in mindfulness activities, with one teacher taking the lead in introducing the concept.  We supported this effort by inviting faculty from an area university introduce a form of music meditation. Finally, we have a student who expressed an interest in art therapy.  She serves as a therapy facilitator to other students when we detect an increase in levels of anxiety.

Schoolwide, we create an expectation for learning and a practice of accountability by conducting home visits when students are not present. Other practices and procedures we implement are:

  • Daily check-ins
  • Field trips
  • Movement and brain breaks
  • Community partnerships
  • Community service
  • Project-based learning
  • Mindfulness
  • Art therapy

We do not have a one-size-fits-all program.  These are just a small representation of activities created to keep our students engaged and connected.

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"Teachers cannot do this on their own"

Dr. Rhonda Neal Waltman has more than 30 years of experience, having served as a teacher, counselor, principal, and assistant superintendent. As an elementary school principal in Mobile, Ala., Rhonda led a five-year turnaround resulting in National Distinguished Blue Ribbon School status and as a former assistant superintendent of student-support services, she led development of a nationally recognized program for providing learning support services to displaced students following Hurricane Katrina. Today, Rhonda is the national director, learning supports, Scholastic Education:

Coronavirus Modification to Article:

When my initial response to this question was first written, we were in the midst of a standard school year. Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves thrust into the midst of a pandemic that requires physical distancing, virtual teaching, and home-based learning. In this new reality, learning is the key—physical absence from school does not have to mean absence from learning. It may look and feel different, but student learning matters even more now that students are away from the classroom.

While it's unclear what the long-term effects of COVID-19 will be, it's clear from recent events that schoolwide closures due to natural disasters, such as hurricanes, have the potential to negatively impact students' academic progress. Therefore, at a time when day-to-day instruction in the classroom has been disrupted, it's more important than ever for schools and districts to ensure they're setting the right conditions for learning for all students—regardless of whether that learning is taking place in person or virtually.

But teachers cannot do this on their own. They need close collaboration with school support staff—social workers, counselors, family liaisons, etc.—who have the resources and expertise to help identify existing barriers to learning and address the academic, social, emotional, and mental-health needs for individual students. This will take careful virtual planning among principals, teachers, and support personnel, but for chronically absent students, it can make a world of difference.  

Original Article:

What happens in the classroom matters so much when it comes to student learning. Even the most effective teacher in the best school cannot teach a child who is absent. Yet, as essential as attendance is for student success, chronic absenteeism is a growing problem across the country.

In 2015-16, national data from Attendance Works, a nonprofit focused on reducing absenteeism, estimated that 15 percent of students are chronically absent, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school each year. That is approximately 8 million kids.

To be effective in addressing chronic absenteeism, systemic, schoolwide approaches are key. So what does that look like? Attendance Works provides a framework for a systems approach to addressing attendance with five components:

  • Provide personalized, early outreach to families about the importance of attending school.
  • Engage students and their caregivers as an essential part of the learning process.
  • Monitor data on attendance records and behaviors around missing school.
  • Recognize good and improved attendance.
  • Develop schoolwide, programmatic responses to barriers as needed.

It's important to focus on addressing absenteeism from the start of the school year. Many times, school staff react to chronic absenteeism rather than looking into why students are absent before attendance becomes an issue. Effective strategies are not limited to a student-by-student approach implemented by one teacher or staff member. That is a large responsibility for one person. What is needed, to help students and their educators, is layers of supports that are specific to a school or district's needs including preventative practices, timely interventions, and immediate responses at the first signs of symptoms.

The cornerstone of this approach is explicitly identifying barriers to learning to help refocus and re-engage students. This can be achieved by mapping needs and available resources both in and out of school and analyzing data to show how well needs are being met. Examples of the types of questions educators can ask about the resources in their districts include:

  • Are counseling and medical services readily accessible?
  • Is additional academic support available in such a way that it isn't perceived as a failure to seek it out?
  • Do students know who they can ask for help confidentially?

It's important to remember that one person cannot do it alone. Students need comprehensive and systemic learning supports to reach their full potential. This means that the responsibility of ensuring student success does not fall solely onto the shoulders of teachers but is a focus for the entire school and district, including families and the surrounding community. Everyone can do something to help.

References

Attendance Works. (2013) The Attendance Imperative: How States Can Advance Achievement by Reducing Chronic Absence, p 14.

Attendance Works. (2018) Data Matters: Using Chronic Absence to Accelerate Action for Student Success.      

Samsel, Haley. (2017) "Natural Disasters And The Implications Of Missing So Much School." NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/12/15/564058043/natural-disasters-and-the-implications-of-missing-so-much-school.

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"Take the direct approach"

Dr. Felicia Darling is a first-generation college student who has taught math in grades 7-14 for 30 years. She leads workshops for K-14 educators and is teh author of Teachin' It! Breakout Moves that Break Down Barriers for Community College Students.

Dr. Darling has made coronavirus modifications through her commentary.  Those additions will be in italics.

When students are chronically late or absent, it impacts the entire class. Schools can communicate that they value a showing-up culture in announcements, advisory periods, and parent newsletters. They can incentivize attendance with awards or points that can be redeemed for prizes and provide consequences, too. While campuswide strategies reinforce positive attitudes around attendance, classroom teachers likely have the biggest impact.

When shifting to long-distance education, it is important that schools communicate new and changing policies toward attendance and participation. Schools may have to redefine what their "showing-up culture" looks like in the new paradigm. For example, whether they are having synchronous or asynchronous classes determines what "going to school" looks like. With the lack of a physical school structure, it will be more challenging for students to maintain focus on policies and rules. Rules may have to be reinforced repeatedly and in multiple ways, such as via online forums, robocalls, emails, Zoom meetings, assignments, scavenger hunts, or letters home. Hopefully, schools can provide laptops to students who do not have them, so students have equal opportunities to "go to school."

Take the direct approach and ask questions:

When someone is habitually late or absent in class, privately ask them, "Why are you absent/late?" "Are you going to continue to be absent/late?" Maybe it is something beyond their control or maybe they are in trouble. An 18-year-old, Brian, told me he just could not get motivated to come to school that early. A middle school student who was chronically absent told me, "I had lice and then I got lice again." As it turned out, her living situation was not safe. Whatever you do, do not ignore absenteeism and tardiness. It can be a sign of trouble at home, depression, or other larger issues. As a classroom teacher, we may be the school representative who has the closest relationship with the child or their parent and may be able to leverage this relationship.

While families make the dramatic shift to working and schooling at home, tensions at home can become amplified. Therefore, it is more important than ever to monitor attendance, engagement, and participation. Instructors may have to explicitly define what attendance and participation are, depending if they do real-time instruction, asynchronous instruction, or a low-tech-mail-home-packets approach. Educators will want to follow up with parents about out why students are not participating in online instruction or not completing assignments, because students may need an intervention. Whenever possible, educators should meet with students or parents in real time with videoconferencing rather than on the phone to discuss absenteeism or nonparticipation. This builds stronger connections between the educator and the family.

Build a strong community of powerful learners:

The first day is when a teacher begins co-creating a community of powerful learners and building norms with students around professional academic behavior. This is a great time to talk about being present, on time, and prepared. Talking about norms around working in groups and having group-worthy tasks on that first day also gives students the opportunity to connect with each other over academic ideas. When students return after being absent, say, "I missed you" and mean it. Maybe mention a significant contribution they made during last class and stress how their group missed out on their unique contributions. This helps students feel included. Also, emphasize how important it is to get caught up before they return to school so they can be at the same place as their classmates. Give students reasons to come to school. Do group-worthy tasks that have multiple entry points and meaningfully tap into students' prior knowledge and experiences. This will help students feel like they belong and that their perspectives matter. One teacher kept students' favorite hair products and a mirror in their class for students to use in the morning before school, because parents' paychecks did not always stretch far enough. A small act like this goes a long way to building a sense of community and giving students more reasons to come to school.

When doing online instruction, it is a good idea to schedule one-on-one, small-group, or whole-class real-time meetings via Zoom or some other teleconferencing software. This may be one of the few opportunities for students to connect with anyone outside of their homes. Continuing to build on the existing class connections will help you be able to leverage these relationships to draw students into fully participating. Ideally, educators would do real-time instruction where they can facilitate inquiry-based, group learning. If real-time teleconferencing is not available, educators can assign simple projects where students can meet in pairs or small groups via Zoom or Facetime to continue to build relationships. It is important to rotate the groups to maximize the diversity of student networks. Ultimately, parents control student attendance and participation. Elementary educators can make up fun games for students to play with each other. For example, students with phones or laptops can play active, Simon-Says-type games via teleconferencing. Secondary teachers can give students a list of nonacademic things to do like taking virtual tours of museums or attending free online concerts. Students and parents will need an arsenal of innovative ideas to get through this challenging time of isolation. Parents and students will be grateful for educators' ideas for nonacademic activities, and it will build stronger partnerships between teachers and parents.

Give frequent feedback and praise that communicates a consistent message: At the beginning of every class, start on time and take attendance right away. Thank everyone for being on time, being present, and being prepared. If a student returns from being absent and is caught up, say, "Carl, that is great that you finished the homework when you were absent." When a few people have been absent, remind students how important it is for everyone to get caught up before they return, because it "helps everyone on our team to be a better player." When students feel responsible for one another, they push a little harder. If a student has been absent repeatedly and did not make up the work, contact them or their parents privately and say: "We missed you and we want you to come to class prepared, because it lifts up everyone in your group. Please check the list of online resources for getting caught up that we created collaboratively during the first two weeks of class."

During online instruction, it is more important than ever to put a spotlight on student contributions during class. One way to emphasize the importance of each student's contribution is to highlight individual posts on the class forum during the real-time Zoom class meeting. Also, during class, educators can spotlight aspects of group projects completed outside of class time. Finally, Zoom allows teachers to invite students to add notes to the whiteboard to maximize student voice.              

Have consequences and rewards: Clearly communicate that students receive participation points for attending class on time and lose points for not attending or arriving late. If a trend emerges where students come to class later and later, try rewarding the on-time ones. At the beginning of class, thank the on-time students and reward them with a hint for the next quiz. When the group of latecomers arrive, directly address the class. If you do it this way, the on-time students know that you are not reprimanding them. It is very important not to reprimand an entire class because of a few students, because it may demotivate all of them. One can give a Friday detention that includes a parent meeting or phone call for chronic latecomers. A final note is not to promise a reward to the entire class if everyone is present and on time. It will only make late or absent students feel to blame when no reward is given.

Many consequences and rewards designed to promote attendance in in-person classes apply equally to online classes. When I teach real-time Zoom classes, I create a waiting room. Not only does this dissuade those pesky "Zoom dive-bombers" we have been hearing so much about in the news, it makes it more apparent when students are late, since each late student has to wait to be manually added. In this way, the late student experiences a natural consequence that is similar to the one they experience when entering a physical classroom late.

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Forming positive relationships with students

Maurice McDavid earned his bachelor's degree in elementary education with a minor in history and Spanish. He has taught middle school history, English, and Spanish, as well as high school geography. He was dean of students for three years and is now in his first year as assistant principal at a bilingual elementary school.:

Absenteeism is a rising challenge in many school districts across the nation. There are a few approaches that I have found to be effective as a classroom teacher and an administrator, but there is no singular solve all.

One strategy that is incredibly basic is forming a positive relationship with your students. In my experience as a dean, I discovered that there are students who would be at school and attend a majority of their classes but would intentionally skip a particular class. When asked about why they were missing that class, they would often describe a disdain for the teacher. We know that not every student will be your favorite and not every student will click with you, but a little kindness and care can go a long way toward keeping students in your classroom.

Another method that has been effective is the use of multiple levels of communication with the student's home. The first level of communication should come from the classroom teacher. When students are not showing up in class, the teacher should check in on the student by reaching out to the family. The second level of communication should come from the attendance office or counselor's office. This demonstrates that the school is working together and all are concerned about the student's attendance. Finally, the administration should be involved. At this point, a home visit is something that I have utilized with great success. Again, it demonstrates to the student and family that we are willing to leave the comfort zone of the school building to come and knock on their door.

Many of these strategies are pretty simple. One thing that is out of the ordinary that I have seen done with success is inviting the student and family to participate in a community-building circle. This is a restorative practice that truly facilitates conversation between all stakeholders. I have run community-building circles that have included the truant student, the student's family, one of the student's teachers, and the student's assigned counselor. This requires planning for time and space for all of the people involved. One of the initial statements it makes to the truant student, however, is that there are multiple adults that care about the student and want to see success. The circle looks to find a root cause for the truancy and build in supports for the student to help reduce the truant behavior.  I have experienced some powerful moments using this model, though it does require a large number of resources. This would be reserved for your most severely truant students.

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Thanks to Janice, Rhonda, Felicia, and Maurice for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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