Back to School Planning: Rethinking Attendance

June 10, 2020
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At ClassLink, we developed a rubric for back to school planning, in partnership with CoSN and SETDA. Attendance is one of the core elements included in the tool. In this post, we dive deeper into the factors districts should consider when crafting attendance policies and procedures for the upcoming school year.

Much has been made in recent years of the research that links chronic absenteeism to student outcomes. In 2016, states rushed to incorporate the measure into their high stakes state accountability systems in response to the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Of course, all of this just reaffirms what educators experience first-hand. Attendance measures provide leading indicators of student success. In traditional school environments, students need to physically come to school to learn. Decades of incentives like perfect attendance awards underscore this point.

School attendance matters for reasons beyond student outcomes. In many states, attendance is used to drive funding formulas. Compulsory attendance laws rely on truancy data to escalate issues to the courts. In the context of a national pandemic, these laws and policies will require rethinking at the state level.

There is also a need for districts to rethink how they measure and use attendance data. Attendance policies will, at a minimum, require revision to remove incentives for sick students or staff to show up at school. More robust approaches will result in expanded definitions of attendance that adapt to remote learning environments and leverage attendance data to support students.

What does it mean to be present for learning? 

No leader wants their school to turn into a hotspot for the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This means, first and foremost, you will need to remove district and school-level policies that encourage students or staff to show up to school despite feeling unwell.Traditional perfect attendance rewards? Gone. Limited sick leave for staff?Rethink. Limiting instruction to in-person delivery? Not a good idea.

These decisions and others that directly relate to the health and safety of your students are likely some of the first receiving attention in your back to school planning. And we all know that despite your best efforts, sick students might show up in school because parents need to go to work. Another scenario you are likely working to address.

But if you cannot entirely rely on the tried and true approaches to measure attendance, what is the alternative? The answer lies in the methods you choose to deliver remote instruction.

If you use digital solutions, you can consult usage data from asynchronous instruction and take remote attendance during synchronous interactions. Many online tools provide some level of usage information. It feels appropriate to highlight the company I work for here. ClassLink provides a single sign-on solution and a one-stop-shop for viewing usage data across all district applications. We heard from several of our district clients that this data was critical in taking attendance during remote learning this spring.

There are also ways to use work completion to track engagement in analog environments. Very simply, who is completing work, taking phone calls, and staying in touch? These are just a few examples to start. As a district, you likely have other ideas that make sense for your students and teachers.

Leveraging attendance data

Once you have data, it’s power depends on how you use it. It may sound counterintuitive, but I think attendance is more important than ever going into the next school year. Here are some use cases worth highlighting:

1. Anticipate need

The greatest predictor of missing a lot of school is past chronic absenteeism. By analyzing attendance trends from the 2019-2020 school year, you can see the students who are most likely to not show up for learning, in traditional or remote environments. Beginning of the year absences are also predictive of chronic absenteeism and can be used to prioritize student outreach.

2. Track health status

Tracking absenteeism rates to determine when infection rates reach a level that warrants closure is a common practice for schools. In the context of a pandemic, using attendance to understand possible infection patterns and the need for closure is critical.

3. Monitor district remote learning strategies

Remote learning will be used by districts in various ways, selectively for vulnerable populations and during periods of school closures. Establishing a system to track attendance during this time is essential to ensure student engagement and opportunities to learn.

These are just a few examples of the ways attendance data matters in planning for the 2020-21 year. Undoubtedly, you can name many more. The point is attendance matters, and any planning for next year must contemplate how it will be measured and used. Check out our rubric, which highlights this and other elements to consider for the upcoming school year.


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About the Author

About the Authors

Mary Batiwalla

Director of Evaluation Analytics



For over a decade Mary has dedicated her career to education, serving as a practitioner, researcher, and executive leader. In her most recent role as Assistant Commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Education, she led assessments, accountability, and data governance.