Transcription of the episode “Solving chronic absence: A whole-school approach”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi. I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:17] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Hedy N. Chang, Executive Director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing school success and narrowing equity gaps by reducing chronic absenteeism. Welcome, Hedy!

[00:00:35] Hedy C: Thank you. Pleasure to be here. 

[00:00:37] Jon M: What is the definition of chronic absenteeism?

[00:00:42] Hedy C: In most places, chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% or more of school. That’s two days in the first month, four days in the second month, six days in the third month. It’s a rolling definition because we want folks to notice when kids are academically at risk because they’re starting to miss too much school. And they can take steps to prevent further absences so they don’t fall behind. There are times people try to define it as missing, so 10% is 18 days over the school year, but the problem is when you use a day measure, people sometimes will wait until, oh, Amy missed 17 days, I better worry about it, when actually that’s already too late. So 10% of the year, and I would just also add that’s missing school for any reason. Excused, unexcused, suspensions.

[00:01:39] Jon M: Historically, how has chronic absenteeism been viewed and handled? 

[00:01:44] Hedy C: Well, chronic absenteeism is a pretty new term. I started work on this in 2006, and at that time, it was a little known research term, used a little bit by some folks over at Johns Hopkins, but no one really understood it. What we’ve almost always looked at as a country is truancy and average daily attendance. Truancy is typically unexcused absences, when you miss school without permission, and average daily attendance is how many kids show up each day to school. It’s an overarching measure, and a lot of times it is used for purposes of funding. But folks actually didn’t even know, when I started this work, that you might look at chronic absence. We thought we were monitoring attendance because we looked at truancy, we looked at average daily attendance, but we actually didn’t notice how many kids were missing too much school for any reason. They might be academically at risk. And the first, I don’t know, really started doing this in earnest in 2008 to about 2014,15. 

A lot of my conversations with schools were something like we don’t have a chronic absence problem, we have really good average daily attendance, 92, 93, 94, 95%. What do you mean we have a chronic absence problem? And all of my work was about getting them to look at their numbers and realize they actually had substantial numbers of kids chronically absent. You can have a school with 95% average daily intake and still possibly have 20% of your kids chronically absent. And if you’re only looking at unexcused absence, you tend to notice older kids missing too much school, but you know, you can have kindergarteners missing too much school because there are challenges. It’s not like they’re missing school and no one knows they’re missing school. They’re missing school and maybe they are sick, maybe they’re experiencing transportation issues, but they’re not truant in the sense of a kid skipping school. And even middle school kids and older skids miss a lot of school, not because it’s willful, but because they experience barriers and challenges. And so we didn’t even understand the concept of chronic absence as something we should notice.

[00:04:04] Jon M: And you mentioned truancy. What’s some of the history of truancy? I think you mentioned that attendance and attention to attendance originated a lot in terms of compliance issues. 

[00:04:15] Hedy C: I think the first truancy provisions were 150 years old, something like that, 100 years old. You know, where I think it gained more momentum was around compulsory ed, both because it was connected to child labor laws and wanting kids to be in school and also the belief that we should have a public education system and kids should show up. And so we had truancy in place for over a hundred years and typically it’s defined at the local level. And usually what happened with truancy is if there’s any state regulation, it kind of says, here are eight different, typical reasons why a kid might have an excused absence — illness, bereavement, you know, certain key things. And then anything that doesn’t fall. Into that those buckets of defined legitimate reasons for not being in school is unexcused. And the challenge, though, is that there can be bias in that. So let me give you an example of how sometimes it’s arbitrary and in fact biased.

Suppose Amy’s sick for five days. She has access to medical care. She had comes to school with a doctor’s note. Jon, you missed five days and you’re also sick, but you don’t have a doctor. You don’t have access to medical care, and you then have five unexcused absences. And the response to that could be first, maybe an angry look from the teacher who says you had unexcused absences, Jon, and maybe you’re not even allowed to turn in your homework or you get a negative note that says, Jon, you missed too much school and you’re naughty, and in fact what’s going to happen is that if you continue missing absences, we might take you to court. But the truth was you were both sick. 

[00:06:16] Amy H-L: When did districts begin to systematically monitor and report absenteeism?

[00:06:24] Hedy C: Well, if you’re looking at chronic absence, I would say this is about since 2018, and really what drove this was the Every Student Succeeds Act. So in the work of Attendance Works, we had actually, as I mentioned earlier, getting districts to notice, fine, calculate chronic absence, but that’s a handful of districts in a variety of places. And we intentionally worked in pretty geographically diverse parts of the country because we wanted to test out this concept in different places. And we, we also had different partners who started taking this on. And so by the time you got to about 2015, we had a number of places that realized they could monitor, calculate, and in fact, reduce chronic absence. And when the feds were looking at the Every Student Succeeds Act, it was in conference committee, colleagues of ours (Attendance Works actually doesn’t lobby) suggested that they should add in language both to make sure that everyone had to report on chronic absence to the federal government.

Also in the Every Student Succeeds Act, they wanted to make a non-academic measure for accountability, and states had a chance to decide what that would be. It turned out the chronic absence was a great selection for that because everyone always took attendance data that was being reported to most states. And certainly it was already collected at the local level. So you didn’t have to have additional data collection. And by then we had a wealth of research that showed that it was connected to third grade reading, you know, doing well in middle school, graduating from high school. And so it was a measure that could easily be incorporated into accountability systems and in 2018, that’s when all of the state plans for implementation of ESSA were due, 36 states plus Washington DC chose to have this as part of their accountability measure. 

Once you have states that are going to look at your chronic absence levels, then school district systems, and also all the data systems that student information systems that exist start to then be able to create much more easy- to- produce reports. So it really was in 2018 that it started becoming more widespread and you started seeing an improvement in data collection, data, counting, data monitoring, and the creation of reports. So you really only started seeing this starting to take off a year or two before then the pandemic hit, which threw everything into a tizzy. 

[00:08:57] Jon M: Speaking of the pandemic, what are the patterns that you’ve seen with the waxing of the pandemic, and then with schools starting to go back to in person and hybrid systems? What do you see in terms of absenteeism and attendance generally and chronic absenteeism in particular?

[00:09:18] Hedy C: If we look at this a little bit, historically, I want to say, first of all, you have to look at both patterns and also look at whether we’re monitoring patterns. When the pandemic first hit in Spring 2020 one of the things we saw was people just stopped taking attendance. I think everyone thought this was a short term pandemic. People thought they were going to take a couple of weeks off for spring break and then we’d all be back. And then when we didn’t come back, no one was quite sure what to do. So the attendance data at the end of 2020 is not very good. In fact, if you look at national data that was released by Ed Facts for that year, it looks like we all… so the year prior, we had about 8.1 million kids chronically absent. When the pandemic struck the numbers that we know for were turned in nationally, it was only 6.2 million kids chronically absent. Clearly there were not fewer kids chronically absent in a pandemic. The issue is we didn’t know how to count and track. Then you get to the 2021 school year where you have a lot of virtual or hybrid learning. Again, we kept thinking, I think, that this would end and we could go back to attendance taking from the past, but people really weren’t quite sure how to take attendance during virtual learning.

There are a few places. So Connecticut is a great example that actually defined attendance in a way where they said you still have to show up half a day in virtual learning in order to be counted. And they actually monitored attendance separately for both in-person versus distance learning. And their data showed that chronic absence increased pretty substantially. It went from something like 12 to almost 20% last year. Other data from the rest of the country. A lot of places don’t show as much of an increase because they made it pretty easy for kids to show up. And some of it is we didn’t want to engage in using truancy measures and taking punitive measures. So people wanted to give families credit for showing up to school. But the problem then is that our measures of chronic absence, if you think about it, in some ways measures lost opportunity for instruction, lost opportunity for learning. If you don’t, if you make it easy to show up, you’re underestimating how many kids miss so much school that they might fall academically behind. So to the extent we’re starting to see data for the 2021 school year. It’s not at the national level. It’s being reported though in states and it’s come out a lot of places, you’re not seeing as much increase as you might’ve anticipated.

And now when you talk about this year, You’re seeing more many places with more than double the number of kids who are chronically absent from pre pandemic. So pre pandemic again, about 8 million kids, 16% of the country. I would predict we are at least at 16 million kids, whatever, 30, something percent, maybe even 40% of the country chronically absent this year. Data from a variety of places. LA Unified, the LA Times produced a report saying chronic absence, or a kid missing at least 9% of the school year, was up to 46% throughout LA Unified. New York City has about 40% of its kids now chronically absent. 

We’re just seeing tremendous increases in chronic absence and it’s exacerbating existing… Even before the pandemic, kids in poverty were much more likely to be chronically absent. African-American kids were much more likely. Native Americans, especially, had the highest levels. Kids with disabilities had incredibly high levels. Those patterns continue and are worse. You know, there’s a report that the McKinsey and Company did. They did it through parent surveys, trying to get a handle on what was happening nationally. And they saw a 2.7 increase in chronic absence from pre pandemic. And what was also interesting in their data trends is they actually, and this was something they looked at around November, they started to see regular patterns of attendance starting to return for the most affluent kids. The kids with families with 100 K incomes or 150 K incomes. While you would seeing continued dramatic increases with the families who are earning, let’s say 25,000 or less. 

So this is certainly a pandemic. You know, sometimes people talk about we’re all in the sea, in the same storm, but we have really different boats that we’re sitting in. Some sit in yachts and some sit on a tire that they’re barely hanging on to, to kind to make it through the storm. This is absolutely true in our educational system, and it’s being reflected in our chronic absence data. 

[00:14:30] Amy H-L: How do you account for this post pandemic increase in absenteeism? 

[00:14:38] Hedy C: Well, I don’t know if we’re post pandemic yet. I’m hoping some day we can say we’re post pandemic. But if you think about the return to school this year… So let me start by talking about what do we know gets kids to school. Kids come to school when they are physically, emotionally healthy and safe, right. Kids come to school when they feel a sense of belonging, connection, support. Kids come to school when they feel academically engaged. Kids come to school when they’re surrounded by adults and peers who have wellbeing and emotional competence and can form the relationships that are so crucial to all these positive conditions of learning. So certainly with the pandemic, our sense, first and foremost ,of physical safety has been really challenged, especially, if you think about low income communities with lack of access to healthcare or communities who distrust the healthcare system because they’ve faced discrimination before, and they don’t really believe in the healthcare system, right. 

And now you’re told you should come back to school, but let’s say you didn’t have access to vaccines or you don’t trust vaccines. But not only that. Kids in high poverty communities and communities of color, they were harder hit by the pandemic, first of all. So whether these conditions of learning exist is both a matter of what happens in community and what happens in school. And if you think about the external community, high poverty communities, these are our essential workers, right. So they were exposed to the virus and had many, many more deaths. If you look at who passed away during the pandemic, who lost family members. So these are then communities have had higher levels of trauma, and they don’t trust our health system. And if you think about, like with our youngest learners, a lot of families who live in multi-generational households, when you wanted to come back to school, they were nervous about coming back physically to school because they don’t want their kids to get sick and then come back and affect the elders living in their households.

The physical safety issues were huge issue. Then there’s also the emotional safety issues of coming back to school and the bullying. And those kinds of issues could actually decrease the sense of safety. If you think about the sense of belonging and connection and support, you know, first of all, there are some communities that never quite felt that sense of belonging and connection to support in school. Or now you’ve got schools where you have high levels of turnover and often low-income communities are where the staffing shortages are the greatest. So there’s less capacity of that school to do that outreach, connection, and support. And I will also say that in a lot of ways, we haven’t engaged the community partners that can help schools create that belonging, connection, and support as much, because we’ve been so nervous about opening our doors to community partners in schools. You know, a lot of what’s been really essential have been expanded learning programs, for example, and while school’s open, not always did people recreate and re-institute those expanded learning programs. This year also, I would just say, has been extraordinarily difficult because historically attendance is best in the first couple of months of school. That is so important because that’s where you establish routines. Learning is scaffolded. That’s also where you develop the relationships so that if you miss school, you know whom to call, to figure out how to catch up. The Delta virus hit right when school started and reopened. Then, just as we’re starting to get things back, Omicron hits right in January and February. So when kids miss out on school in those first months of school, it has really negative, challenging impacts. Unless you have strategies for support and engagement and outreach, that can happen as soon as you can, even throughout that process and connecting them back in and also make sure that kids have access to virtual and distance learning approaches so that they can stay up with school and stay connected to school, even when they can’t get there.

[00:19:22] Amy H-L: It makes sense that those first couple of months of the school year are extremely important in terms of relationships, in terms of student engagement. Why do you tend to have lower absenteeism at the beginning of the school year? 

[00:19:40] Hedy C: Oh, I think because historically that’s when people are excited, they want to see their friends. Schools also do a lot of, I think schools have historically been better about paying attention to relationship building in the beginning of the year. You have teachers who reach out, who call. We could possibly do even a better job. And people message about attendance. You know, we’re all excited school’s coming back. We want to be there and be with our friends. And there are some places that, I think there’s some real practices that are proven effective practices for improving attendance that often happen at the beginning of year. And one of my hopes is we want to scale them out.

Parent teacher home visits is a really amazing strategy for improving attendance. It also, by the way, part of the reason I think it works is it makes sure that you change the mindset of educators and build a different kind of relationship with families. Because what parent teacher home visiting does is you have a ideally a teacher with another colleague from the school going out and visiting a family in their home and building a relationship. And it all starts with asking families about their hopes and dreams. You know, what are you hoping for? What do you want in school? How can I help you? How can we partner together? And it really is great for debunking any myths or stereotypes that folks might have, as well as opening teachers’ eyes to some of the challenges that kids and families might face so they’re sympathetic and empathetic when those challenges occur, and then establishing a real connection. And then the idea with parent teacher home visiting is you do that in the beginning of the year. You do that later in the year, again, to connect with families. In between you stay connected to families. That’s the kind of thing that helps to establish a strong relationship at the beginning of the year. 

[00:21:32] Jon M: I want to go back to a reporting question because the figures that you’ve been giving on the chronic absenteeism during the pandemic are just so amazingly high. When ESSA asks schools to report or states ask schools to report on chronic absenteeism, are they including that distinction between the excused absence and the unexcused absence, or do they only look at unexcused absences?

[00:22:03] Hedy C: When states ask for chronic absence data, they’re reporting all absences, regardless of whether they’re excused or unexcused. So that chronic absence figure, and we actually including suspensions, too. If you’re not in class to gain access to instruction, then it should be included as an absence. So my understanding is states are including all absences. I will say, Jon, in California, it’s interesting. California, which is where I live, both collects total absences, but it actually also asks districts, when they submit the data, to share whether the absences were excused or unexcused. And you actually can go onto the California state website and you can look at an absenteeism report, which shows how many absences are excused, how many absences are unexcused, how many were due to suspensions, and how many were due to, they have something in California called independent study, and if you don’t complete the homework, that’s also included, a kind of absence. And you can look at how things group in those patterns by school district, but also by ethnicity, by student group. And you really see huge variations in whose absences are mostly considered excused versus unexcused. In fact, you can see, we have a research partner, Claire McNeely, who’s been playing with the data. And what she found was that the more a school is in higher poverty, the more absences tend to be considered unexcused, but then, and it’s hard to do it with all the ethnic groups, but African-American kids, there’s enough kids. There’s always, almost always a differential with even when African-American kids have the same number of days, total days of absence, they tend to have more of their absences labeled unexcused versus excused. And it speaks to a lot of the ways we code absences, what we think of as an, a legitimate, not legitimate, absence has biases. And, and one of the challenges with this is that. Because we’ve historically sort of seen absenteeism as a matter of compliance. A lot of times, you know, we, we, again treat absences, especially unexcused absences with schooling, blame, and threats of legal action. We know absences occur when kids have experienced trauma. The worst thing you can do when someone’s experienced trauma is say, what’s wrong with you. The most important thing you can do is say what happened and how can I help.

The most effective way to reduce absences is to understand why the absences occurred in the first place and put in place a different kind of solution. When you threaten families, you don’t exactly get to the honest conversation about what happened nor do you motivate families to come in because they feel a sense of belonging, connection, and support. In fact, if kids feel unfairly treated, they may continue their absences because they feel alienated. In fact, there’s a great study from South Carolina, where they took all of their data and they actually found that kids who were connected to the legal system as a way of responding to their absences ended up actually having worse attendance than the kids who did not.

[00:25:42] Jon M: You mentioned earlier, looking at absences in third grade, sixth grade and so forth. What does the data show in terms of the impact of absences and chronic absenteeism on being able to predict a student’s drop out or continuing in school and so forth?

[00:26:02] Hedy C: It starts with kids are chronically absent in kindergarten, and first it predicts a less likelihood of reaching proficiency by the end of third grade. You can actually have kindergarten absences, by the way. This is a study in Rhode Island. It predicted higher suspensions in middle school. You could almost imagine, you know, the kid who is chronically absent and, by the way, third grade attendance tends to improve because it’s just easier to get kids there. But if you were so chronically absent in kindergarten first, you’re not reading proficiently by third grade, you could still be there and still fall behind, right. And then you can imagine those kids who are in middle school now, they’re not doing so well in school. They might act out and get in trouble because what’s happening in school isn’t really engaging them and connecting with their needs. We know by sixth grade, chronic absence starts to predict patterns of dropout in high school. 

And then ninth grade is a critical year also. Ninth grade attendance is absolutely essential. There’s great work from the University of Chicago, by the way, that shows that when kids are chronically absent in ninth grade, you know, the first thing is if you’re a chronically absent a class, it starts to predict failing that class. Once you get Ds and Fs, then you’re not on track for graduating from high school and ninth, eighth and ninth grades, are both critical years for supporting that transition to high school.

Addressing chronic absence is something that you need to do early and often or improving attendance. There are some kids, you lose them in kindergarten, and if you could address them, you could bring them back. But there are other kids, they do okay through elementary school, but then something happens as they go to middle school and that’s when you need to find the [inaudible]. Then there are some other kids who, they’re doing okay all the way through, but ninth grade proved to be too hard of a transition and you lose them in ninth grade. So it’s not, this is also not an inoculation approach, you know, just because you managed to get a kid coming to school well before doesn’t mean they might not experience a challenge the following year that causes them to start missing school. The great news about attendance data is we take it every day. So we can always be using it. It’s a leading indicator. It’s a leading indicator that we can use to notice when students are struggling, when their families are struggling. So we can take action and make sure they get the support they need, the engagement they need to be in school and do well.

[00:28:33] Amy H-L: Hedy, you advocate for solutions grounded in an understanding of the factors that contribute to chronic absenteeism. What are these factors and what are some of the solutions? 

[00:28:48] Hedy C: We tend to think about them in four big buckets. The first is barriers, lack of access to healthcare, transportation, not having safe path to school.

The second are issues around aversion. What happens in school actually pushes a child out. Maybe that’s because they’re being bullied, but maybe it’s because you have ineffective school discipline practices that actually push kids out. 

The third is around disengagement. There isn’t that connection, belonging, and support. The curriculum being offered doesn’t pull a child in. They don’t have opportunities to connect to peers. Peers are really important for kids to come to school. So this engagement.

And then the last one are some of the misconceptions. It is also true that families often don’t realize how absences are adding up. They don’t recognize how just two days a month can throw your child off track. They don’t think that early attendance like in the early grades matters so much and they don’t realize how that’s so foundational to building a routine of attendance. That’s important for an entire school career. 

So you have barriers, aversion, disengagement, and misconceptions. And coming to solutions means you really need to understand which, or sometimes there’s multiple of these things going on. So for example, let’s say you’ve got a family that’s dealing with asthma. If you don’t recognize the asthma and you start talking about, you know, missing two days a month as a problem, it’ll fall on deaf ears. Because families are more worried about, you know, the health of their kid. You could say, Hey, I know you’re…, or let’s even talk about fears of COVID. We could say, we know you’re concerned about this. And let me tell you how are we keeping school safe for your kid who has asthma and making sure that we have the strategies to address it. if they have an asthma, asthmatic attack or with COVID. This is how we’re keeping our school safe and healthy. And then you can say, and this is because we know if your kid misses too much school, but you have to start with where the concern is. Or if a family is concerned about transportation, you really have to understand what are the issues that are driving in at the forefront. And then you can help to look at all of these barriers and figure out how you weave in attention to them at the appropriate time. 

[00:31:26] Amy H-L: And who has the time or the relationship with the family is to ask these questions?

[00:31:33] Hedy C: Well, in our view, this takes a team approach. This is not a one person effort. You have to have an organized team. And ideally you have a team that both includes a school administrator, a principal who can help look at. And what I also would say is you want to be looking at your data so that you can think not just individually, but about groups of kids. Often chronic absence is highest in kindergarten and then maybe the sixth grade or in middle school transition. And then that ninth grade, as you were asking me about earlier. So if you know, it’s particular grades. Then you want to create a team that can look at those grades, but if you know, it’s particular student populations, so it’s not just time, it’s also skills, capacity abilities.

So let’s say it’s kids who are from a particular neighborhood, you might engage a community partner, a church, a youth group, a Y, someone who works in that community. And they can help with that messaging and that connecting. A lot of times, you can build it into… by the way, the other thing I would say it is you’re really looking at a tiered approach. So there’s universal supports, tier two and tier three, and you’re taking your data to know who needs what. The universal supports involves all your teachers. It’s making sure that there’s a positive, friendly greeting every time a kid comes in. “And I noticed you when you weren’t there.” If you can engage in these parent teacher home visiting, it could be a teacher that’s equipped. But then you also have to make sure that you have a set of supports so kids who are chronically absent, maybe it’s your expanded learning program that can also help, your social worker, depending on the level of absence. You have a system and a process for someone else coming in and supporting the work. You could even, by the way, build this into parent teacher conferences so that at every parent teacher conference, not just talk about academics, but also attendance.

And if a kid’s showing up all the time, “Hey, congratulations. Keep it up.” missing just a little bit of school: “Just checking in. Are you feeling comfortable at school?” Are you feeling belonging support?” And if the kid’s experiencing a lot morechallenges, that might be a time where you want to bring in a social worker, a nurse or someone else who knows the family to help support that.

But you leverage the existing parent-teacher conference so that you pay a little bit of attention to this, to all of the students in a school. And then the last other thing I would say is, you know, we’ve also seen amazing strategies using students and families themselves. To help each other around these issues.

There was a, a district in Rhode Island, but I remember that this is a high school and they equipped parent leaders to be in front of the school building when the school opened and they would cheer, congratulate, you know, support kids. They would also notice the kids that didn’t show up and they would call their parents.

By the way, it turns out that high school parents hate other parents calling their parents to scaffold. When you are showing up, it was actually really improved and they trained all the parents in confidentiality, but they created parent peer leaders. Who knew the other members of the community to do this. Other times in New York City and well, in a variety of places, they’ve used students as peers, as peer mentors talking to kids. Fresno actually is another example where they use peer mentors, peer success mentors. One woman we once met and she was actually on one of our webinars. She was an immigrant herself. She was a high school student and she knew what it took to, to, you know, the challenges. And she was mentoring middle school kids.

And as part of her mentoring, she’s talking about attendance checking in on her peer mentors. So, and then a lot of times you can just make sure that those mentors are connected to someone on school staff. So if they see a challenge that is beyond their capacity to address, if someone they can talk to about what they’re seeing, but there’s a lot of people.

And one of the things is that we have to do, especially given the numbers we’re talking about. We have to make this a community affair. We’re, in a positive way, we’re noticing when kids show out and expressing concerns and offering support when someone doesn’t and it comes from a variety of places. When we’re in trouble, as we think a social worker is going to solve the problem, a truancy officer is going to make the difference. This is about a whole school community seeing attendance or not showing up as an indication that we have to engage, reach out, and support each other. 

[00:36:41] Jon M: I have a question about technology. New York City, for example, just announced that they were going to create an all virtual system, specifically in order to address attendance and absenteeism. What’s your sense of, you know, how technology should, and shouldn’t be used? What, what seems to be most effective?

[00:37:04] Hedy C: There, and by the way that the creation of these long-term virtual schools is present in many places in the country, because there are some families who feel so nervous about not showing up to school that they’ve opted for long-term virtual schools. I think we have to really work to understand how to engage in best practices for engagement in virtual schooling, in distance learning.

One of the challenges is that. I think that well, so this is what I’ve heard before. There were actually some virtual schools before the pandemic, and I think some of them had pretty decent records. So just having school by distance and offering it virtually doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t work. What we don’t have a good enough understanding is what creates engagement in those settings. 

I will also say for some students for high school. So here’s another big barrier. I think I forgot to mention it, sorry, especially among high school kids. We’re seeing that a lot of high school kids have risen to the occasion of the pandemic, the challenges of the pandemic. They’ve taken on jobs. They’re adding to their family income. They’re helping to care for sick. And, you know, again, this probably existed before the pandemics, just it’s in greater numbers. They’re helping with family members. They may be helping with taking care of their siblings in even greater levels because of the stresses of the pandemic. Those students sometimes need real flexible learning to stay in school. Otherwise they’ll drop out to be able to sustain the job. I think one of the benefits of virtual learning is to create opportunities for kids to stay engaged even when it’s hard. 

We have to learn better about how do we monitor when engagement isn’t happening in distance learning. This is why you want daily attendance in some ways, because it allows you to constantly check in. Is a kid staying engaged? Are they feeling connected to the information? Are they feeling connected to relationships? So even though it might be virtual learning, I think you want to have real ways for human communication, human relationship building, and human checking in, even if it’s using a virtual platform. And we have to better understand what are those markers that kids are disengaging so we can act on them and reach out before it’s too late, before kids are totally disconnected.

Personally, I think kids usually need some combination. I don’t quite have the research, but I believe that we should be creating more hybrid models, where there are times where kids see people in person, connect other kids in person, and then they also can gain access to flexible learning opportunities through virtual platforms.

[00:40:01] Amy H-L: Is there anything we haven’t discussed today that you’d like to share with our listeners?

[00:40:10] Hedy C: One of the things that we really advocate for is taking a tiered approach. That’s a kind of a public health model. And if you go onto our website, you’ll see addressing chronic absence. You can see these three tiers. And a three tier system is probably not so dissimilar to what you see in MTSS [Multi-Tiered System of Supports], PBS [Positive Behavior Support],, but there are a lot of ways to think about it from an attendance perspective. 

Also, during the pandemic, we added in the foundational whole school supports to our three tiers, because what we’ve seen in the pandemic is that in many ways, these foundational whole-school supports that are not necessarily about attendance are things that when they’re not in place, attendance suffers. Having a physically and emotionally healthy, safe school environment, a positive school climate, advisories and places so adults can have relationships with students, having family engagement in place, making sure that traditions and celebrations are continuing to happen, making sure you have access to technology, making sure that you have an enriching afterschool. You know, all the basic relationship building. Those are things that aren’t just about attendance. They’re about a whole set of school operations. The pandemic has eroded them. We have such high levels of chronic absence. It means that those foundational whole-school supports are missing. And what schools need to look at is which ones have been most eroded and how do we rebuild them. Are there student populations, because they’ve as an overall group, maybe from this neighborhood, maybe it’s English Language Learners. Maybe it’s a particularly vulnerable student population where we have to really think about how to tailor and rebuild those supports in a way that is meaningful to that population that has already experienced a lot of educational inequity. 

[00:42:18] Jon M: Thank you, Hedy N. Chang of Attendance Works. 

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