Public reporting of attendance crucial to COVID recovery, report finds

States across the country are making progress in tracking and publicly reporting attendance data, but more is needed to ensure students are getting to class every day to take advantage of learning recovery efforts, according to a new report from Attendance Works.

The report, Monitoring Who is Missing too Much School: A Review of State Policy and Practice in School Year 2021–22, notes that school attendance suffered during the pandemic as students struggled to engage in virtual learning, became sick with COVID-19, or had to take on more family responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or taking on part-time jobs.

As a result, rates of chronic absenteeism — defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school days in an academic year — has doubled, and in some cases tripled, in many places. Historically disadvantage groups have been most affected.

“Although there are skyrocketing rates of chronic absence in communities throughout the country, now is not the time to shy away from monitoring and publicly releasing student attendance data,” Hedy Chang, Attendance Works executive director and founder, said in a statement. “Well-crafted state policy that requires taking attendance daily and monitoring chronic absence is essential. Efforts to support student recovery following challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic are unlikely to have the desired results unless children and youth are present in school to benefit from the programming being offered.”

Recent growth and areas in need of improvement

The brief builds on Attendance Works’ 2021 report, Are Students Present and Accounted For?, which found that while taking daily attendance was commonplace prior to the pandemic, only 31 states and the District of Columbia required it during the 2020–21 school year. With students returning to the classroom, the number of states that have reinstated daily attendance taking has grown, and most now require daily attendance taking across all modes of learning (in person and distance).

Most states also now allow long-term distance learning, and in many cases short-term distance learning, during quarantine. Offering multiple modes of learning allows students to stay engaged even when they face barriers to getting to school in person — due to quarantine, a lack of transportation, health care or other issues, according to the latest brief.

California is cited both as a state exemplifying promising practices and as an example of where current policies leave room for improvement. For example, the California Department of Education publishes a report on absenteeism by type of absence in its interactive data portal, DataQuest. The data can be disaggregated by ethnic group and is available at the school, district, county and state level, as well as the number and percentage of absences that are excused, unexcused, due to suspensions or resulting from incomplete independent study assignments.

Publicly reporting this data allows stakeholders to better determine whether the criteria used to categorize an absence as excused or unexcused is equitable.

“Unfortunately, the process is often not fair,” the brief states. “For example, a student who stays home when sick and provides the school with a doctor’s note is coded with an excused absence, while a sick student who lacks a note is typically considered truant. Disaggregated data can be used to notice and address when disproportionately high levels of absences are considered unexcused among students living in poverty and from Black, Native American, Pacific Islander and Latino/Hispanic groups.”

Additionally, definitions of what constitutes a day of attendance vary drastically among states, with even greater diversity in distance learning than for in-person instruction, making it difficult to meaningfully compare data across localities. For instance, while California defines a day of positive attendance as showing up for at least one class period, the District of Columbia defines it as being present for at least 80 percent of the school day.

Attendance Works offered several recommendations to help state policymakers:

  • Ensure accurate school attendance data is collected and that the data be easily accessible so local educational agencies can make informed decisions about resources needed to improve attendance.
  • Use data to inform recovery efforts, such as where interventions like tutoring, home visits and expanded learning opportunities are most needed.
  • Invest in adequate and equitable resources and expand partnerships to help students and families overcome challenges hindering regular attendance.
  • Implement a multi-tiered system of support to provide preventative, targeted and intensive interventions with aide from local youth, housing, health and education services.
  • Provide opportunities for engagement for chronically absent students who benefit from whole child approaches and enrichment activities.