The scramble to contain the spread of the new coronavirus has thrown a big, unforeseen roadblock into many school districts’ efforts to drive down rates of student absences.
The uncertainty created by the virus eventually may be reflected in year-end data on chronic absenteeism rates that will be publicly reported and, for many schools, used in their states’ accountability systems that determine how well they performed.
Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia include measures of chronic absenteeism in their state accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law that pushed states to look beyond traditional indicators like test scores and graduation rates in evaluating schools.
The U.S. Department of Education said in guidance it released March 12 that it would consider “a targeted one-year waiver” for schools that can’t meet attendance benchmarks because of issues related to the virus.
States define chronic absenteeism differently, but it generally includes students who miss a certain number of school days for whatever reason, including excused absences due to illness. Even in states that didn’t include chronic absenteeism in their plans, districts must publicly report rates.
After ESSA was enacted, attendance advocates said tracking absenteeism would motivate schools to explore a range of factors that can keep students from showing up—from poor classroom engagement to a lack of transportation—and to find resources and strategies to meet those needs. Around the country, schools have worked with parents, coordinated services like food pantries and free laundry, and launched broad attendance campaigns.
“Schools are our hub of community,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director and president of Attendance Works, an organization that works with states and schools to promote school attendance. “We don’t have many community institutions left. Schools are one of them.”
But it’s harder to meet those needs when things like the availability of supplies and the ability to gather in groups are limited by contagion concerns. And, even before the spread of the coronavirus, some critics of the absenteeism measure argued that many factors that affect student attendance are too far outside of schools’ control.
Some of the strategies schools have used to cut back on absenteeism are facing a mammoth test.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has urged students and employees to stay home if they are sick or have a fever out of concern they may have undiagnosed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. The agency also encouraged schools to suspend use of incentives like monthly perfect attendance awards that may motivate students to come to class with symptoms.
Also in question: the “How Sick Is Too Sick for School?” handouts some schools have sent to parents in past years to let them know they shouldn’t keep their children home if they are fever-free and showing only minor symptoms, like a runny nose. Attendance Works, which makes a version of the handout, suspended its use.
And educators are also facing much more undefined and uncontrollable barriers to attendance: fear and confusion.
The CDC emphasizes that most cases of COVID-19 have been in adults, and that children appear less likely to become ill. But families face conflicting messages from employers, government officials, and a variety of media sources about the severity of the virus and how to control its spread.
In areas heavily affected by the new coronavirus, many businesses have asked employees to work from home to try to reduce transmission of the illness. But so far, most school districts have opted to remain open, taking advice from authorities like the CDC to consider the impact of disrupting students’ education and access to school meals many rely on.
Open doors don’t always mean students show up, educators report. Some families have opted to keep their children home alongside parents, some have voluntarily quarantined because of possible exposure, and some are afraid their children may be particularly vulnerable. While most districts are excusing such absences, they still count toward chronic absenteeism rates.
After a student at a Hillsboro, Ore., middle school tested positive for the COVID-19 virus over the March 8 weekend, the school district deep cleaned the school, asked the student to remain home for two weeks, and wrote a letter to parents that classes would continue.
“The unfortunate reality is that COVID-19 is in our community,” Superintendent Mike Scott wrote. “Updated guidance from [state and county health officials] is that closing schools may not be an effective method for stopping the spread of the virus.”
Still attendance plummeted as the school reopened March 9. That day, 318 of the school’s nearly 700 students stayed home, district spokesperson Elizabeth Graser told Education Week. The next day, 300 were absent, dwarfing absence rates of 30-40 in the previous week.
And concerns have affected other schools that didn’t have cases. Across the 20,000 student district, there were 2,558 absences March 9, compared to around 1,200 the week before. “We are excusing absences related to illness or if a parent excuses the absence out of concern,” Graser said.
Absenteeism “is perhaps the most likely [accountability indicator] to be impacted by COVID-19 due to school closures or student absences,” the new federal guidance says.
Few state education departments address the chronic absenteeism directly in guidance to school administrators. More frequently, they outline the process for seeking a waiver from requirements for a 180-day school year.
AASA, the School Superintendents Association, has heard concern about chronic absenteeism related to the virus, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of advocacy and governance for the organization. Those concerns could be addressed through waivers at the state and federal levels, she said.
“I think part of the disconnect is that right now, district response to COVID-19 is evolving, emergent, and immediate,” Ng said. “The scope of any chronic absenteeism … might almost be a lagging indicator, something districts don’t feel the full scope of until later, and need to address at that time.”
Chang, with Attendance Works, said the issue is among those she plans to discuss with a group of state administrators that lead attendance initiatives as they work through unique challenges presented by the coronavirus response. And chronic absenteeism alone isn’t likely to sink a school’s state rating, she said. Among states that include it in their accountability systems, most have made it worth less than 10 percent of a school’s overall evaluation.
As schools have tracked absenteeism more thoroughly in recent years, unique local concerns are frequently reflected in their data, Chang said. Districts have seen distinct attendance dips related to wildfires, measles outbreaks, and teacher walkouts, for example.
And even when those factors seem out of a school’s control, monitoring the data can help administrators identify students who need extra support or intervention, Chang said. And, in the time of concern about a contagious virus, the data may also be useful to health officials attempting to coordinate a response.
“What I don’t want is for folks to think they should quit monitoring chronic absenteeism,” Chang said. “In this case, chronic absenteeism is reflecting the challenges that are affecting families.” —iStock/Getty Images