Why the Pandemic Forces Administrators to Rethink Attendance — and

When COVID-19 forced the mass closure of schools across the U.S. during the early months of 2020, we all wondered how—or if—students would continue to learn amid the turbulence. Seemingly overnight, educators, parents and edtech companies churned out crisis plans for remote instruction in hopes of carrying on, at the very least, until summer break.

Unsurprisingly, concerns over the expected “COVID slide” began to take shape almost as quickly as the emergency response plans, with the learning loss projected to be especially dire for those students already at risk of failure. As the weeks wore on, it seemed that many students would, thankfully, finish the school year with much of their learning intact. In fact, some studies forecast that high performers would actually see improvement in certain areas, such as reading, during times of independent learning.

Less clear was how deeply the disruption to traditional instruction would impact children who lacked access to learning technology and appropriate resources. With the expected disenfranchisement of a significant portion of their student bodies—facing numerous obstacles to learning—school and district leaders around the country feared a rising tide of chronic absenteeism.

Concerns over the long-term negative impacts of poor attendance are not new, but the pandemic casts a different light on the issue. With the many hurdles now in place between students—especially those already suffering the effects of education inequity—and the learning environment, leaders must make every effort possible to ensure that they are reaching all students.

“With the shift to remote or hybrid learning, attendance tracking has never been more critical,” says Miriam Altman, chief executive and co-founder of Kinvolved.

Through direct partnerships with K-12 school systems nationwide, Kinvolved aims to elevate student attendance and engagement by cultivating strong relationships. “Research has proven that the most effective way to prevent and reduce absenteeism is to establish a welcoming school community, which includes positive engagement, communications and relationship building between school and home,” explains Altman. This becomes a herculean task when the physical connection to school has been severed for most students.

“As school moved online,” Altman notes that in some areas, “as many as a third of students stopped attending class. Across equity lines, students were left without access to reliable wireless internet and technology, an issue that leaders have not fully resolved. Without reliable access, teachers and administration scrambled to locate and communicate with students and their families.”

Under circumstances such as these, attendance data becomes increasingly important. Once maligned as a tedious, compliance-based metric, this data may actually reveal a broader picture of the student journey than previously imagined.

Heeding the Warning Signs

“Known as the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ absenteeism is the first sign a student might be experiencing a more critical challenge in his or her life,” says Alexandra Meis, Altman’s co-founder and Kinvolved’s chief of product. “Due to the pandemic, causing shifts in school to remote and hybrid environments, experts predict that already substantial gaps in student learning by race, ethnicity and household income will only widen during the 2020-2021 school year.”

But not all hope is lost. If provisions are made to ensure equal access to education—wherever it takes place—for all students around the country, there’s promising evidence that the worst predictions can be avoided. Of course, this relies heavily on both community engagement and appropriate technology. Furthermore, it requires the collection of reliable data that is easily communicated across stakeholder groups.

As Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, wryly observes, “attendance data can help close equity gaps if schools don’t just monitor who shows up but notice who is missing.”

Operating at the local, state and national level, Attendance Works helps districts track chronic absence data and coordinate interventions in partnership with families and…

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