Like the students and communities they serve, educators have endured fear and frustration these last two school years, but have also enjoyed the fruits of their resilience, ingenuity, and determination. We know that local conditions vary worldwide, but we’re feeling optimistic at this time about post-pandemic K–12 education in the U.S., and in this special blog series, McREL consultants and guest authors offer practical tips on succeeding in 2021–22 and beyond.
We have all been through a very difficult, traumatic year-plus. The transition back to in-person school this spring or in the fall is an important time to strengthen and forge relationships—to rebuild routines and rituals or make new ones to create a community at school. It is a critical opportunity for educators to address attendance in a meaningful way. Educators can provide clear structures and expectations that say, We want to see you every day and help students and families get back into a regular routine of showing up to class. Attendance can be an important focus point for schools to provide structure and clear procedures that can create comfort and safety for students and families. Such routines are especially needed following the chaos and unknowns that occurred during the pandemic.
Research and experience show that attendance improves when a school community offers a warm and welcoming environment that engages students and families and provides enriching learning opportunities. Students are more likely to come to school when they feel safe, know that someone at the school cares about them, and have opportunities to participate in engaging and relevant lessons. Families are more likely to make sure their children are in class every day when they know school staff are looking out for their children’s best interests and when they understand the potentially adverse impact of absences, even just two days a month, on academic success.
Educators are essential to making sure all of the students in a school feel welcomed and engaged, and that they learn about the importance of daily attendance. To set the tone for a warm and welcoming start to the school year, educators should create a ritual. In early grades this can include hanging a name plate on a wall when students walk in the room so everyone knows the student is there. In later grades, teacher rituals can include greeting each child by name as they enter the classroom, and making the taking of attendance a signal that class is starting. And for all grades, educators should identify instances in which children or families are challenged, develop plans or provide supports as needed, and later acknowledge improvements as they occur.
To support the transition back to in-person school, schools will need to pay attention to reestablishing expectations for attendance and clarifying what will happen if students miss school. This process needs to start this spring, get reinforced where possible during the summer, and continue in the fall. Clear expectations with transparent accountability help to reestablish norms that may have been lost. Schools should take a moment to review what is written in their student handbooks and in their guidance to staff, to assess if anything should be updated given the experience of the last year. They can then identify opportunities to disseminate and clarify expectations.
Find engaging and caring ways to remind families and students about the importance of arriving at school on time, and acknowledge that readjusting to a commute and the need to be present all day can be challenging at first. Use in-person or virtual events such as preschool or kindergarten registration, back-to-school nights, or middle school or high school orientations, to set expectations about good and satisfactory attendance. Consider using an interactive exercise like Illustrating the Gap to demonstrate how absences can put a child academically behind. Share key messages about attendance verbally and also provide handouts for students and resources for families as well as tools like Attendance Success Plans. Don’t forget that while students across the country have seen their traditional forms of learning disrupted, many have adapted by taking on new, bigger roles in their homes and communities, mastering new technology and expanding how and where they learn.
Working with school staff, develop procedures for checking in with families of students who are not attending. Let families know that someone from the school will be calling to check in and make sure they are OK, and to share any necessary makeup assignments to ensure that children do not miss key lessons. This strategy, encouraged every year in many schools, takes on more importance this year as students need to know that teachers and schools care about them and want to see them.
For example, before school starts, identify the process that will be activated by a student’s tardy arrival or absence. Who and how will a list be generated, and who will make contact? What call login system will be used to track calls going out, and is there a script for teachers to follow? Start the year ready to be successful. If a student is struggling to arrive on time or to show up for class, is there a process and protocol to identify the best person to intervene, and what strategies are available to use? Once clear procedures are established, communicate them with families in a way that sends the message, “We want you here every day to learn.”
At the same time, the recovery from this year’s long interruption of instruction and learning needs to focus on maximizing learning opportunities, whether they take place in regular classrooms or during tutoring opportunities or after-school programming. Mentoring programs pairing students with a caring adult at the school in a positive, ongoing relationship can help motivate attendance. And students and families are more likely to share the barriers they face to getting to school (such as unreliable transportation, lack of access to mental or physical health care, food scarcity, or unclean clothes) with an adult who meets with them regularly.
The importance of attendance and establishing clear routines for staff and students cannot be overstated as we seek to help students recover from the lost instructional opportunities they experienced during COVID-19. Monitoring and capturing data to activate timely supports was extremely challenging last year. We all need to make sure students benefit as much as possible from the rich learning opportunities offered at school this year. Teachers, principals, schools, district staff, and community partners are all responsible for making sure children and their families know we care and are committed to doing what is necessary to ensure students attend.
Faith Connolly is a research director at McREL International. Hedy N. Chang is the executive director and president; Catherine Cooney is the director of communications; and Sue Fothergill is the director of strategic programming at Attendance Works.