Missing a school day now and again because of sickness or medical appointments is normal. Missing more than two days a month on a regular basis puts students on the path to chronic absenteeism.

It adds up quickly and becomes a serious problem, exerting a big impact on children’s learning, overall health and life prospects. Since the pandemic school shutdowns, it has been diagnosed as a prime symptom of “long COVID” in education.

This massive educational disruption has seriously altered the student-attendance picture in Canada, the U.S and the U.K. High levels of students in K-12 continue to miss so much school that they can be labelled “chronically absent” – which can mean future struggles in both the educational system and the real world post-school.

Student absorption in the digital world, heightened parental anxieties over schools as vectors for transmission of COVID and other diseases, and changed attitudes about the value of regular school attendance are among the most often-cited factors.

Conventional approaches to ensuring attendance are no longer enough. Comprehensive, evidence-based student attendance policies are an urgent necessity to reverse this troubling trend. Making that stick will involve multiple fundamental changes affecting school boards, school officials, teachers and parents.

Chronic absenteeism means missing too much school – for any reason – excused or unexcused. It’s now defined as missing 10 per cent of the scheduled time during the school year (around 18 days).

Educational strategies for ensuring full attendance have evolved significantly since the 1960s. School authorities now take a far more progressive, less punitive approach to minimize “skipping school” and it worked reasonably well as long as the vast majority of students and parents supported regular, daily school attendance.

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But that consensus shows unmistakable signs of dissolving across a broader cross-section of the school population.

A U.S. school attendance advocacy group, Count ME In, based in Portland, Maine, provides a helpful distinction between “truancy” and “chronic absence.” It rests on the assumption that the number of students regularly missing school is relatively small and can be contained without resorting to more robust policies and practices.

Today, truancy applies only to unexcused absences, emphasizes compliance with school rules and relies on administrative sanctions and remedies. School attendance officers track “chronic absence” with an approach that counts all reasons for missing school (excused, unexcused and suspensions), emphasizes the academic impact of missing school and uses community-based positive strategies.

It’s tough to assess the full extent of attendance in Canadian schools. The data is incomplete and difficult to get from school districts. Only system-wide attendance averages are released, with no publicly reported rates of chronic absenteeism.

Piecing it together involves finding a few examples supported with official and publicly available data. In Ontario, the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board was fairly representative of the first phase of the pandemic. Its overall student absenteeism rate rose to between eight and 14 per cent in November 2022 from three to four per cent in 2020.

In New Brunswick’s Anglophone School District West, the average absentee rate in early 2023 (February to April) hovered around 2.4 days per month for grades 9-12 and around 1.8 days for K-8 students. Projected over 181 school days, that would put record numbers of students in danger of being chronically absent.

In the U.S., the situation is even more dire. Student absenteeism has more than doubled. The national average was 28 per cent in 2020-21, twice the rate of 2018-19, according to data compiled by Stanford professor Thomas Dee. In Michigan, it rose to 39 per cent during the pandemic. More recent data shows some improvement, but some American cities still report absenteeism rates of 40 per cent.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the U.K. Association of School and College Leaders, sees post-pandemic chronic absenteeism as a fundamental problem. That was driven home in a 2023 survey of headteachers in which 81 per cent reported that local attendance support services were inadequate in meeting the challenge.

Proposed plans to improve student attendance and reduce student absentee rates tend to be big on rhetoric and notably lacking in effectiveness. Hollow attendance policy pronouncements merely plaster over a problem that requires a serious investment of time, energy and resources.

It’s time to focus on implementing policies and practices that reclaim students lost to the system since the pandemic.

Here’s a checklist based on research into best practices for policymakers, school districts and principles:

  • Make student attendance a priority: Reaffirm a commitment to full, in-person attendance supported by revamped strategy and implementable policies from school districts down to the school level.
  • Track and report on absenteeism: Activate and improve student attendance “early warning” tracking utilizing student records software. Establish streamlined and manageable reporting requirements for all classroom teachers and include absenteeism data on regular report cards.
  • Step up with visible leadership: Empower district superintendents, principals and regional attendance officers to provide more visible, demonstrative support to classroom teachers.
  • Establish attendance-mentoring hubs: Forge new alliances with attendance-mentoring programs that rebuild trust in student-parent-school relations. These programs demonstrate the positive impact of school participation as well as the enduring value of school attendance.
  • Rebuild student attendance support services: Restore student attendance offices and recruit field officers committed to home visits. Restore some truancy-reduction practices, including warning letters, parent-teacher conferences and denial of academic credits.
  • Implement a robust policy with consequences: Tracking absenteeism is meaningless unless it leads to consequences for students in terms of academic progress and withholding of course credits. Time-limited suspensions might include requirements for mental-health counselling and/or community service. Denying course credits to students missing 20 per cent of the school year (36 or more days) is a defensible policy.

Improving student attendance in post-pandemic times will involve an integrated service-delivery strategy backed by policies with consequences.

To make a dent in the entrenched problem, it will have to engage students, parents and families. It requires a far more proactive strategy.

In certain school zones, it may be necessary to have attendance officers knocking on doors and talking directly to families, finding out why children are missing school, removing barriers to attendance and strengthening ”social connection” with our local schools.

The damage caused by persistent absence is severe, and the longer these high rates continue, the more entrenched the habitual behaviour. Chronically absent students become social casualties, struggling in and out of school, and are more likely to end up in custodial institutions.

Turning the tide will take investment in student attendance support services, but that will produce longer-term benefits for everyone.

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Paul W. Bennett
Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., is the director of the Schoolhouse Institute and an adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University. He is also the author of Pandemic Fallout: Learning Loss, Collateral Damage and Recovery in Canada’s Schools (Cardus Foundation, November 2023). X: @Educhatter

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