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Why did the children miss school so much? Study says you have to go beyond chronic absenteeism to find out

Alarms are going off across the country about absenteeism.

Far more students than usual have missed large chunks of school during the pandemic, with some school districts seeing their rates of chronic absenteeism double.

This measure, which examines the proportion of students who have missed 10% or more of the school year, is important. But that gives no idea why one student missed so many lessons – especially important at a time when students were often told to self-quarantine – or how best to help them.

Research published this month suggests that if schools want to answer these questions, they will need to open the “black box” of this chronically absent label.

“Because it’s super simplified, it hides a lot of nuance,” said Jing Liu, assistant professor at the University of Maryland College of Education. “We have to differentiate the reason for the absences to know how to help a particular child.”

That’s what Liu and a colleague set out to do when they looked at daily classroom-level attendance data for nearly 40,000 middle and high school students in a large city district in California between school years. 2015-2016 and 2017-2018.

A few trends emerged: unexcused absences increased over the year, while excused absences held steady. Black and Hispanic students and students from low-income neighborhoods racked up spurious absences faster than their white and more affluent peers. And when students missed a lot of classes at the beginning of the year, their absences also accumulated at a faster rate.

With that level of detail, Liu said, “you can intervene much faster.”

Together, the findings underscore the power of detailed attendance data as schools attempt to re-engage students and reduce absenteeism. And though more and more districts are bolstering their tracking efforts with the help of COVID relief funds, many don’t have the details that would tell them what last year’s absences really mean or offer clues about how to prevent students from missing classes in the future.

“In most cases,” Liu said, “a sufficient system is not in place.”

How the pandemic has complicated attendance tracking

Over the past decade, schools have begun to pay greater attention to truancy, as the federal Department of Education has required schools to report this data and several states have tied the metric to school grades. The stakes are high: chronic absenteeism has been linked to higher dropout rates, lower academic achievement in reading and math, and academic disengagement.

Nationally, about one in five students was chronically absent in the first full school year of the pandemic – an increase of 2 million students, according to recently released federal data analyzed by researchers at the nonprofit Attendance Works and Johns Hopkins University.

National data is not yet available for last school year, but several places have reported dramatic increases. At New York, 41% of students were chronically absent last year, up about 27% the year before the start of the pandemic. In the Las Vegas area, the rate increased from 22% to 40% during this period. In Connecticut, 24% of students were chronically absent last year, up from 10% before COVID hit. And in Ohio, the rate jumped to 30% of 17%.

As a result, districts are hiring more attendance staff, visit students at home, or offer gift cards to students to improve their attendance. The San Antonio District Foundation is even organize a car gift.

But understanding exactly why chronic absenteeism is on the rise can be tricky, especially since required quarantines and COVID itself have kept many students out of school for extended periods. Some districts tried to collect more details on these types of absences, but there was not much consistency.

“There must be a lot of confusion,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works.

A few districts, like Los Angeles Unified, have gathered enough detail to identify the effect of COVID. There, about half of all students were chronically absent last year, up from 19% before the pandemic. Quarantines accounted for 20 percentage points of that increase, district officials said, but another 11 points were due to other factors.

Others tried to disentangle the various causes, but data issues ultimately left them in the dark.

In Fargo, North Dakota, for example, when attendance specialists followed parents who frequently reported that their child was home with COVID or in quarantine, they sometimes found that the real reason was that the child had anxiety about coming to school, was being bullied, or felt they had fallen behind in a certain class.

“Often though, parents are very keen to hide what’s going on in their lives from you,” said Gabe Whitney, district attendance specialist. “That’s the difficulty of our roles, trying to figure out exactly why the students left.”

Schools in Santa Fe, New Mexico created a special “Q” code — which did not count as an absence — to indicate when a student tested positive for COVID or was sent home with COVID symptoms. But officials believe the code has been underutilized and some students who should have been marked as “Q” have racked up absences.

What worries schools the most are students who miss school because they are not interested or do not want to go. But the line between disengagement and COVID issues isn’t always clear either, Chang noted.

“Let’s imagine a child, he is quarantined for 10 days,” she said. “They were in chemistry, and now they’re not coming back because they feel so behind. Was it due to quarantine or not?

Districts seek better data to understand absenteeism

Some districts are moving toward collecting the kind of data that indicates why students are absent and most in need of additional outreach.

Santa Fe schools have purchased a new attendance tracking system that makes it easier to spot racial or other disparities.

Schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, are launching a new system this month that will flag students with chronic truancy patterns — but if a student is simply sick, that tag will disappear once they will be going back to school a bit.

And Fargo uses a new system that sorts students into different tiers based on daily updated attendance data.

“We can click a button and get real-time data,” said Tamara Uselman, director of equity and inclusion at Fargo. “We also know for whom the system works well and for whom we need to make changes.”

With this detailed data in hand, school officials say they are more quickly able to get help for students who miss class time the most.

In Santa Fe, after a student is away for a few days, a teacher calls home to check in. But when absences start to pile up, school attendance teams and an expanded team of attendance coaches step in with strategies like family meetings and home visits.

“We go home and say, ‘Hey, we haven’t seen you in a while and we’re really worried about you and want you to go back to school,'” said Crystal Ybarra, equity manager. , the diversity of the district. and Engagement Officer, who oversees the attendance initiative. Staff are also trying to figure out: “What’s going on has stopped you from going, and let’s see if we can come up with some ideas to fix this.”

Other discoveries in research by Liu and Monica Lee of Brown University suggest that efforts to improve school climate and culture could be a promising way to tackle absenteeism.

Combining attendance and student survey data, Liu and Lee found that students who accrued unexcused absences faster were also more likely to feel like they didn’t belong at school. and received less academic support than their peers.

Chang has noticed that more and more districts are paying attention to these dynamics and helping students build meaningful relationships with adults as part of their attendance initiatives.

In Fargo, where the chronic absenteeism rate soared to 30% last year — nearly three times higher than before the pandemic — staff noticed even higher absenteeism rates among Native American students and black. For Uselman, this disparity signaled the need to improve school culture.

So with the help of COVID funds, the district hired a cultural specialist who works with teachers to ensure that Indigenous history is taught accurately and that Indigenous perspectives are regularly included in lessons. And the neighborhood added a writers workshop led by two black instructors which has been popular with black students.

The district’s two attendance specialists also meet with students who have missed a lot of class time to ask them how their school could help them.

“A lot of children who are absent from school, they may be late for class, really feel like they don’t belong in the class, or the teacher doesn’t understand them or does not respect them as the person they are. And that creates issues where they don’t want to be in those classes,” said Nick Hawkins, one of Fargo’s specialists. “It all starts with respect and the feeling of being welcomed and understood.”

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

Kalyn Belsha is a Chicago-based national education reporter. Contact her at [email protected].

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