Measuring and monitoring attendance the era of COVID proves a challenging task

Districts likely won’t be celebrating Attendance Awareness Month next month with the usual fanfare, but in this time of hybrid or virtual learning, where students need additional support to also make up for missed time last year, local educational agencies are acutely aware that being present is more important than ever.

Research has long linked poor attendance habits to lower reading comprehension and graduation rates, to higher dropout rates and even incarceration. As a result, LEAs have historically prioritized efforts to improve attendance rates, but never before has doing so proved so challenging.

With the majority of schools still operating through hybrid or full distance learning models as a result of COVID-19, defining, tracking and analyzing attendance has proven for more difficult than when students were attending class in-person each day.

Still, attendance matters more than ever, said Attendance Works executive director Hedy Chang. And taking steps to address it quickly will be vital in ensuring students can thrive under these formidable circumstances.

“We are trying to educate kids in a way that we’ve never done before. We’re in a whole new territory,” Chang said. “So, we really have to be creative about how we track (attendance) and notice when and which kids are missing school, because it matters both for long-term success and for creating a school system that works.”

Under the distance learning requirements spelled out in Senate Bill 98 — the education funding trailer bill — LEAs must ensure among other things that students have access to daily live interaction with certificated employees and peers as part of regular instruction when feasible, and that daily tracking and weekly monitoring take place to verify participation and progress.

There are a number of methods that districts can employ to measure attendance rates, but first, districts must define what constitutes “attendance” when students are unable to meet in the school buildings. Attendance Works has made available a new data framework for monitoring attendance whether school is virtual or blended.

That monitoring component will be especially importance, Chang explained. “If kids don’t show up, we have to understand and unpack why they’re not showing up. The longer you allow for the absences to cumulate, and a kid to disconnect from school, the harder and more expensive it becomes over time to bring them back in and make sure they can succeed.”

It is important that school officials reach out to students who don’t appear to be checking in regularly in order to get to the root of the problem, Chang said, as large numbers of children failing to login to their online lessons could be a sign of systemic issues.

“Maybe the way we’re offering virtual learning isn’t all that engaging. Or maybe there’s such a lack of access to the internet that we think we’re offering it, but the family can’t get there,” she explained. “You don’t want to wait to notice it’s not working. We have a whole year of school to make sure kids get the instruction they need.”

What can schools do to promote good attendance through distance learning?

Districts have likely already conducted surveys to identify technology needs in their communities, but there is an often-overlooked tactic in identifying which children may have attendance challenges early on: Leveraging 2019–20 attendance data. If a kid chronically absent prior to the school closures at the end of last year, it is likely they will face hurdles to attendance this year.

Additionally, it is important that student contact information be updated, as families throughout the state have faced job loss and have possibly moved without updating their information with their child’s school. Plus, it will be especially critical to communicate often with parents how and when distance learning will take place, or if their child will need to show up to school in person.

Perhaps most importantly, LEAs must be slow to get defensive, and quick to not just monitor their own data, but to learn from districts that may be getting better results at try new methods of promoting positive attendance.

There is so much room for innovation right now, Chang said, and it will be useful for districts and county offices of education to look to one another and learn from one another what practices are proving successful in getting kids to show up.

“We are trying to create a new kind of system that none of us had ever developed before,” she said. “So, we have to be prepared to always evolve, to update, to improve. That’s the key to success.”