Absenteeism as a COVID-19 Effect — How Do Schools Respond?

Absenteeism rates may be difficult to track due to differences in report preparation; however, the pandemic has reduced school absenteeism — teachers are struggling to keep students on track.

The percentage of chronically absent students increased by 9.2 percent between 2019-20 and 2020-21, according to the National School Boards Association, while the state average increased by 6.8 percent. The US Government Accountability Office also reported that approximately 1.1 million teachers had at least one student who never showed up in class for the 2020-21 school year, regardless of the teaching environment; if they were conducted virtually, in-person, etc. — teachers who conducted virtual lessons due to the pandemic reported having more students who never showed up.

Now that teachers are having difficulty teaching due to increased student absenteeism, they have estimated some of the challenges absent students may have faced — challenges related to the learning environment, a lack of tools for learning at home, and competing time demands – such as not having reliable internet access at home, or having limited adult assistance or support at home, or even having difficulty getting used to the virtual model, according to U.S Government Accountability Office.

According to the New York Times, the most common reasons for students missing school are illnesses regardless of Covid-19 affected, safety concerns, bad weather, transportation difficulties, and so on. As a result of Covid 19, students are also experiencing anxiety and depression, leaving them emotionally unstable – which contributes significantly to student absenteeism.

Jacqueline Rodriguez, the director of student support services for California’s Sacramento City Unified School District, said parents were extremely concerned about their children’s safety at the start of the pandemic, which may have resulted in a higher rate of school absences when the pandemic was initiated.

According to the Los Angeles Times, prior to the pandemic, concentrated poverty and racism were the primary causes of high absenteeism among students. The chronic absence rate for black students was 57%, 49% for Latinos, and 68% for homeless students – Parents are concerned about their children’s academic performance, school engagement, and mental health at school.

Parents of Black and Hispanic students are most concerned about their children’s academic performance, interaction at school, and mental health – 5 percent has increased in academic performance and engagement/attendance from prepandemic to Fall 2021, and 7 percent in mental health. Source: McKinsey Parent Survey, November 2021 (n=14,498) Photo:McKinsey&Company

School absenteeism is a growing issue because it has a significant impact on academic performance — Balfanz and Brynes (2006) stated that students who do not attend school frequently receive fewer hours of classroom instruction and, as a result, receive poor academic grades. Furthermore, Neild and Balfanz (2006) and Rumberger and Thomas (2000) discovered a link between low school attendance and increased future academic risks and eventual dropout – that students who do not show up in class face significantly higher academic risks.

From first to sixth grade, Black students are 3 months behind White students in Math and 2.6 months behind in Reading. Source: Curriculum Associates i-Ready assessment data Photo: McKinsey&Company

According to McKinsey & Company, “students in majority-Black schools are still five months behind their historical levels in both mathematics and reading, while students in majority —White schools are now only two months behind their historical levels, widening pre-pandemic achievement gaps.” — learning levels were different even before the pandemic; however, the pandemic exacerbated the situation.

“It’s a matter of answering a simple question that a parent has that for whatever reason, they didn’t feel like they had access to that information. Sometimes, it’s a matter of making that connection with the family to the school,” added National School Boards Association, estimating the reason why the school attendance would be so low.

School-based responses to the problematic absenteeism

Schools are making a change in response to the sudden increase in chronic absenteeism. The Akron Public Schools, which are considered the most prominent among high school seniors, had 25% of their students chronically absent, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.

The best way to increase student attendance is to keep students and teachers engaged. Akron Beacon Journal added that Akron Public Schools has several attendance-based initiatives — stay in the game campaign in partnership with the Cleveland Browns, also partnering with Graduation Alliance – which has mentors call homes to track students’ attendance and hopefully raise the student attendance rate.

“Instead of saying ‘Oh, you missed five days; here are all of those missed assignments,’ I try to approach everything as if we are falling forward,” said Chang, the Attendance Works Director to Los Angeles Times.

Carli Rocha-Reaes, Bridgeport’s director of school counseling and parent partnerships, emphasized the importance of engagement not only between students and teachers, but also between families — “When students feel that sense of belongings in their schools, when families feel a strong relationship to administrators and teachers in the buildings, that’s how we get students back to school.” Rocha-Reaes explained.

Alberto M. Carvalho, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, stated that he plans to launch the “I ATTEND LAUSD” program, which will primarily focus on tracking and supporting students at risk – to provide a roadmap to students as a guideline and to build strong relationships with them. However, this yet-to-be-implemented system is unappealing to students in higher grade levels — it is unfair to them because they have already lost so much time.

So, now that Covid-19 has worsened student attendance and even narrowed access for minority and low-income students, and virtual learning models are ubiquitous at school, it is administrators’ and teachers’ responsibility to actively engage with both students and parents to increase engagement, so they feel more belonged and welcomed to join. However, it is still unclear who will compensate students who have already been impacted by Covid-19.

Read more: The Pandemic Exacerbates Latin America’s Already Troubled Education