Revised playbook offers chronic absenteeism strategies amidst COVID-19

The Attendance Playbook — originally released in 2019 by the nonprofit Attendance Works and Georgetown University-based think tank FutureEd — has been updated to account for the challenges posed by transitioning to fully virtual or blended learning models.

The resource, Attendance Playbook: Smart Strategies for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism in the COVID Era, contains strategies to address mild to severe student chronic absence and divides strategies into three tiers of intervention. It also identifies the problem each intervention solves and highlights schools or school districts that have successfully used the strategy. New to the playbook are methods of adapting evidence-based practices when is not possible to meet in person due to school closures, as well as a new data framework for monitoring attendance and participation, whether school is virtual or using a blended model.

Collecting such data will be vital in helping teachers and support staff target interventions to student groups in need of additional services to overcome barriers to attendance and participation.

Amidst the upheaval of daily life for all students caused by the pandemic and the surge in civil unrest in response to the filmed killings of more African Americans at the hands of police, promoting good attendance habits will be both more challenging and more important than ever, said FutureEd Director Thomas Toch.

“The coronavirus outbreak and the shocking deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and other African Americans have challenged the nation in fundamental ways. On a smaller scale, they have compounded a serious problem facing schools: chronic absenteeism,” Toch wrote in the updated resource. “Even before the pandemic and the striking acts of police brutality and indifference toward Black Americans, nearly 8 million students — 16 percent of the nation’s public-school population — were missing 10 percent or more of school. With the disruption of the school calendar, the possibility that classes will continue online in the fall, and the trauma that the recent killings have surely inflicted on many students of color, schools face new and difficult challenges in trying to keep students engaged.”

When schools across California closed for what would become the remainder of the 2019–20 academic year, few had experience measuring participation in distance learning settings and, as a result, attendance tracking methods varied greatly. Some districts didn’t monitor attendance at all once students went into stay-at-home orders, while others measured it by how many students logged into an online portal each day. Districts also tracked students’ communications with teachers or the number of assignments they submitted as signs of “attendance.”

Once schools have ensured they have the most up-to-date contact information for every family, and that every student has access to a device and internet, there are a number of methods that can be used to track attendance. Among them:

  • Engagement: Schools should track how often they engage students and families in a day or a week. This is something teachers are especially well-positioned to monitor based on student response to daily questions or assignments.
  • Participation: Schools can also track whether students participate in online classes and complete learning activities. Participation is more than simply logging on, according to the report. It entails showing up for an entire class or submitting an assignment.

If students are neither engaged nor participating in their online lessons, it is important that schools look into why that is before punishing students for not “showing up,” authors note.

As a companion piece to the update, Attendance Works also released its “Guide to Using the Attendance Playbook: Smart Strategies for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism in the COVID Era” to better assist educators in thinking through key questions in selecting, prioritizing and implementing strategies included in the playbook. In addition to general tools and ideas, it also offers charts and checklists to help determine which interventions to try with students and their families.