In the past several years, school attendance and absenteeism have been key focus areas of education policy. Consistent school attendance is necessary for students’ long-term academic success, and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 heightened the role that attendance plays in school performance metrics. The Act requires states to submit multi-factor education plans for measuring and attaining student achievement to the federal government. Most states have chosen to include chronic absenteeism in their plans as one of the ways that they assess student progress. And in many districts, school funding depends partly on daily attendance, a relationship that has been a source of anxiety for—and inequality between—school districts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the work that governments and schools have done to promote consistent student attendance. It has required schools to craft new ways to encourage attendance in remote, hybrid, and in-person learning environments and pushed lawmakers and policymakers to adjust standards for attendance. States have taken various approaches to curb increased absenteeism during the pandemic and have implemented different policies to address the impact that lower attendance and remote learning have had on school funding, standardized test performance, and behavior management plans. In addressing absenteeism, states have also contended with the disparity in quality of education that students of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds have received, as the pandemic has widened these long-existing gaps.
Most states have allowed local school districts to decide whether to bring students back to physical classrooms or to continue remote learning during the 2020-21 school year. However, some states and local governments have declined to follow this trend. For example, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have mandated that K-12 students learn remotely until public health improves, while Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, and Texas have required schools to provide in-person learning for all students who request it.
States that permit students to attend school remotely have taken varied approaches in tracking attendance. Some of these policies have responded to the difficulties that students may have with accessing remote learning platforms as a result of connectivity issues or because they share digital devices with family members. Connecticut and Pennsylvania have encouraged educators to consider participation in different kinds of academic activities in marking student attendance. New Jersey has opted to mark students as present so long as they submit their assigned work by the end of a day to give children of working parents more time to access digital devices or to receive help at home. Some school districts have moved away from daily attendance monitoring; in North Carolina, several districts have looked at attendance trends, rather than daily attendance, during the pandemic.
Not all states have altered their attendance requirements as significantly. States like Minnesota require students learning remotely to communicate with a teacher at least once in order to be marked as present for a school day. Many states have also declined to allot more sick days or excused absences to students. Indiana, which has emphasized the importance of rigorous tracking of student attendance and learning during the pandemic, is one of many states that has not increased its legal limit on the number of absences or tardies that students may accumulate each year.
The federal government has supplied additional funding to elementary and secondary schools to respond to pandemic-related challenges through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The Act provides funding to states for public services, including education, depending on individual states’ and local governments’ financial needs.
At the state level, some governments have declined to tie school funding to attendance during the pandemic and have dedicated state funding to help schools meet students’ learning needs. In California, the state legislature altered education laws to allow remote school participation to count toward schools’ daily attendance numbers, and most other states have done the same. California appropriated $5.3 billion in funding to supply students with computers and other distance learning materials until schools return to in-person instruction. And in New York, the state government guaranteed public school funding for the duration of the 2020-21 academic year despite concerns about budget reductions caused by the financial toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
Other states have opted to maintain the traditional model of basing school funding partly on student attendance. Texas requires schools to offer in-person education to all students who request it and conditions school funding on satisfying these requests. Although the state held school funding at a constant for the fall semester of the 2020-21 school year, the state education board intends to return to its former policy of tying school funding to attendance in the spring semester. Florida has also required its schools to give parents the option to send their children to school in person and is offering financial incentives to schools that “exceed their projected enrollment” in 2021.
Standardized Testing Requirements
Some states have also reduced the stakes of standardized test performance during the pandemic. The federal government, state governments, and schools use standardized testing results to assess the quality of education that schools provide to students. Consistent attendance correlates with higher standardized test scores, and the pandemic has increased absenteeism and created disruptions that have reduced student learning. In Massachusetts, the state legislature chose to waive the requirement that high school students complete grade-level standardized tests in order to graduate due to the pandemic’s effect on learning this past spring. Massachusetts has also chosen not to “perform accountability calculations,” which take absenteeism and standardized testing results into account, for schools until 2021, if not later. Washington promised to collaborate with schools to delay standardized testing to the spring of 2021 for K-12 schools if administering these tests were not feasible in the fall of 2020. States like North Carolina, however, have chosen to administer standardized tests this year without changes to the testing calendar. In making this decision, North Carolina argued that these scores will help educators understand the impact of the pandemic on learning.
Public School Enrollment and Reopening Plans
Despite efforts to encourage attendance, public school districts have still not seen their daily attendance numbers approach pre-pandemic levels. Many public schools have also lost students to private K-12 schools. States have largely permitted private schools to craft their learning models during the pandemic. Many of these schools have chosen to conduct class in person or pilot hybrid learning models, and well-resourced parents and their children have flocked to these schools. The pandemic has also prompted some parents to pull their children out of traditional schools in favor of homeschooling them. This bodes poorly for public school districts because funding depends in part on the number of students enrolled in a given school.
Local governments have also struggled to decide when schools should return to in-person learning environments. In a highly publicized change in policy, New York City recently decided to expand in-person learning, including by opening all elementary schools, shortly after it announced that it would close schools as the local coronavirus case count rose. Chicago also recently published its plan to bring children back into classrooms in phases starting in January 2021, a decision that has received backlash from those who believe that doing so is unsafe until the coronavirus case count decreases.
Many of the fluctuations in school enrollment and reopening plans have had the greatest impact on marginalized communities. As Mariajose Romero, a professor at Pace University, has observed, “high-income schools may be more likely than those in poor neighborhoods to provide excused absences for, say, a mid-year vacation.” In contrast, schools that are comparatively under-funded or teach students predominantly from marginalized communities may be more likely to take action against or punish families of students who have missed days of school. Throughout the pandemic, schools in Massachusetts have filed reports against families of students who have been absent from remote schooling. These reports, filed with child welfare agencies, express concerns that these students may be experiencing educational neglect. The majority of the reports have been filed in “high-poverty, predominantly Black and Latino school districts,” revealing one of the many ways in which the pandemic has unequally affected children along economic and racial lines.
Behavior Management in Virtual Classrooms
The pandemic has raised questions about how schools should reform their behavior management systems to suit remote and hybrid learning environments. Increased use of digital devices for classwork has introduced unprecedented behavioral challenges. For example, children have had more access to social media than ever before. Parents and teachers have needed to devise new ways to promote positive uses of technologies while also limiting the times at which students use social media and the kinds of material children access online.
The shift to remote learning has also caused schools to consider how to best regulate student behavior and create norms of classroom conduct, a topic that is a source of long and ongoing debate among educators and policymakers. Behavior management systems are often not applied equally to all children: research has found that schools across the U.S. disproportionately discipline “Black students, boys, and students with disabilities” relative to other groups of students. Anecdotal evidence suggests that schools discipline students less frequently in remote learning environments. In some ways, the pandemic has encouraged educators to examine more equitable approaches to behavior management that account more significantly for the needs of individual students and the impact of environmental stressors on student behavior. Currently, though, there are not enough data points available about classroom management to detect patterns in how teachers have administered consequences for behavior they consider to be undesirable during the pandemic.
Education policymakers have also called for schools to recognize the impact that pandemic restrictions may have on children’s behavior and devise behavior management plans with those concerns in mind. Not all children have encountered leniency when they do not comply with behavior and attendance policies, though. For example, juvenile courts have imposed legal consequences on students on court-ordered probation who did not comply with attendance requirements in remote learning environments, even though coronavirus restrictions may have contributed to gaps in attendance.
Relatedly, child advocates have also worried about the decrease in reports of potential child abuse during the coronavirus pandemic, since there are indications that abuse and neglect have actually increased since March 2020. Teachers and other school employees are required by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect. Some organizations have listed warning signs that abused children in virtual learning settings might display, although these indicators are far more subtle and more rare than they would be if children were taught in person. Organizations like UNICEF have recommended that local governments continue to provide social services to students for the duration of remote and hybrid learning and to take these safety considerations into account as children return to classrooms.
Addressing Student Learning Loss
Educators and policymakers have had months to evaluate the effects of absenteeism and interruptions to classroom instruction on student learning, and schools must focus on making up for the learning loss that occurred during the spring and fall semesters of 2020. Options for accelerating student growth include supplemental tutoring, holding classes on weekends, and summer school. Schools need to implement these corrective measures equitably if they are to be effective. Otherwise, they will reinforce the differences in quality of education that well-resourced and under-resourced students have always experienced, but that have become even more stark at a time when factors like technology access and school choice further this division.