Seeking solutions to worsening absenteeism
Flexibility is not generally a term that's closely associated with the operation of public school systems. A big dose of flexibility, however, may be exactly what's necessary for school districts to combat the growing crisis of chronic absenteeism among students.
Despite the intense public pressure to reopen schools after the chaotic pivot to virtual learning during the pandemic shutdown in the spring of 2020, many students simply are not returning to classrooms with fidelity. While a certain number of students have transferred into charter and independent schools, some others still enrolled in public schools just are not showing up to learn.
In an article published in The Day focusing on the compound crises currently facing public education, The Washington Post reported that throughout Connecticut, the number of students chronically absent increased from 12% in the 2019-2020 academic year to 24% this year. Chronically absent is defined as missing more than 10% of school days. The data comes from a company called EveryDay Labs that works with school districts to improve attendance rates.
As if having nearly a quarter of public school students chronically absent isn't bad enough news, the firm said the data shows an even more dire situation among certain demographics of students. Among English-learners, students with disabilities and those who qualify for free lunches, the chronic absenteeism rate has climbed to 30% in the state, and among children experiencing homelessness, more than half — 56% — are chronically absent. Several local school districts include sizable numbers of students in these demographic categories.
Just as educators have long understood there is no one-teaching-method-fits-all when it comes to students learning effectively, everyone must now understand there's no one-reason-fits-all for student absenteeism.
Elizabeth Brown, president of the Waterbury Board of Education and member of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education executive committee, tol The Day Editorial Board students are shunning classrooms for a wide variety of reasons. COVID has increased illness and deaths and sent the rate of emotional and mental health challenges soaring. Some students who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods express fear about their safety when traveling to and from school. Others are needed to step up to help support their families by caring for younger siblings or taking jobs to contribute financially.
This is exactly where the need for flexibility comes in. If school districts are going to be effective in getting students back into classrooms, they need to identify the wide variety of reasons for absence and employ a range of strategies and solutions. A student grieving a grandparent's death from COVID needs much different services than one who must work a morning shift at a fast food restaurant.
Brown said Waterbury is using some of its federal COVID relief funds to establish ways to reach out to absent students individually and to collaborate with community groups and agencies to attack the core reasons for absenteeism on multiple fronts. For example, mental health workers and police officers are teaming up for home visits to chronically absent students and working with families to solve their individual challenges, she said.
In addition, the Waterbury board is setting up a task force to review school schedules after the district noticed attendance increased when a later-than-usual school start time was temporarily instituted as a way to deal with school bus driver shortages. Having alternative school schedules can also help lure back students who must work during daytime hours or must pitch in with child care duties for working parents.
Another way to keep students in classrooms is more opportunities to study what interests them most while expanding the career pathways available in high schools to include more options for students who are not college bound. Brown also points out that while many students could not be engaged by online classes, others thrived in the virtual learning atmosphere that emphasizes more independence and scheduling flexibility.
If school districts are going to succeed in reducing chronic absenteeism — and it's critical that they do — school officials must employ individualized strategies and collaboration with community partners while breaking out of their traditionally rigid scheduling parameters. Flexibility will be key to returning all students to the classroom.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.