Pandemic-Era Attendance Pandemic-Era Attendance

Pandemic-Era Attendance

Erin Werra Erin Werra Edtech Thought Leader
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It may take decades to know the full impact of the pandemic on K-12 education and school culture, but the impact of COVID on student attendance can be seen right now.

Chronic absenteeism is spiking along with infection rates as the nation slogs through a second pandemic school year.

According to the Connecticut Department of Education, the attendance rate for all students fell 1.5 percentage points from March to September 2020, with attendance rates of free and reduced lunch students falling four percentage points, and rates for students experiencing homelessness down 10 percentage points.

In California in 2021, according to EdSource:
  • 29% of students in Stockton were chronically absent, more than double the rate two years ago.
  • The governance domain had the least amount of support and resources,  
  • Elk Grove Unified, outside Sacramento, reported a 26% chronic-absenteeism rate—triple the pre-COVID rate.
What makes this more troubling is studies revealing the impact of chronic absenteeism on students’ performance.

Specifically, studies from 2014-20 show that missing 10 school days decreased math test scores by 0.06 to 0.08 standard-deviation units (SDs), and that even one snow day absence could reduce students’ math scores by 0.05 SDs.

Moves to virtual learning have also decreased student performance anywhere from 0.1. to 0.4 SDs in some studies. 

The combination of absenteeism and virtual learning could continue decreasing attendance and test scores, forcing districts to get creative to combat these effects. 

Combatting Chronic Absenteeism

Districts have tried many strategies to combat chronic absenteeism, from incentives like pizza parties to interventional tactics like phone calls to punitive measures aimed at parents.

However, the underlying COVID-related reasons for increased absenteeism—job loss, mental health challenges, changes in family structure, and even pandemic-related deaths—can’t be solved with a pizza party.

Furthermore, parents and guardians know kids need to be in school. The challenge is bridging the gap between “want to” and “can do.”

As Erin Simon, assistant superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District, told EdSource, “We thought we were prepared, but we were caught by surprise. We’re doing our best to mitigate it, but it’s not easy because our staff is already overwhelmed.”

Defining Attendance vs. Absenteeism

Even more fundamentally for many districts, the pandemic has called into question how we define and measure attendance and absenteeism. 

Virtual learning has created a hierarchy of attendance categories, from “present in person” to “present virtually synchronously” and “present virtually asynchronously,” with different standards of “presence” for each.

Similarly, absenteeism used to be a black-and-white question: either someone was in attendance or they weren’t. Now, with some forms of asynchronous virtual learning, it’s possible for a student to be absent from all in-person instruction but still consuming and learning the material.

Driving Attendance, Capturing Presence

The byproduct of these attendance changes has been an increased focus on ways to more accurately take attendance.

Recent updates to top edtech platforms let teachers tie method of instruction to their learning environment, so teachers can note whether a student is in-person or virtual, synchronous or asynchronous (to the extent that’s possible to measure and track).

They have also modified the standard categories of “present,” “absent,” and “tardy,” and made attendance-taking easier and more automated, reducing the chance of error and even allowing for automated attendance reminders to be generated.

Within these systems, there’s also the potential to use “positive attendance” to capture student presence and encourage attendance. 

For instance, just by having students check in to class using a keypad, kiosk, or scanner:

•    Attendance-taking is automated.
•    Student ownership of attendance improves.
•    Alternative schedules and modalities can be accommodated.
•    Good attendance can be rewarded.

Download the “Positive Attendance” PDF here.

Erin Werra Erin Werra Edtech Thought Leader
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