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Leveraging Virtual Tools to Support Continued Learning for Absent Students

Mid-Atlantic | March 12, 2024

A young Asian student participating in e-learning at home

With cold and flu season upon us, it can feel like our kids are out of school more than they are in school. Illnesses are disruptive to their routines; they miss their friends; and, most importantly, they miss opportunities to learn. Health-related absences were a common occurrence before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Now, after experiencing a global health crisis, kids are more likely to be kept or sent homeif they're showing signs of infectious illness even if they feel well enough to engage in school activities. This extra caution may help reduce the spread of disease, but it also increases the likelihood that students may end up chronically absent.

Chronic absenteeism is generally defined as missing 10 percent or more of days in a school year (excused or unexcused). It's an issue our REL has studied before and was recently elevated by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) when it named increasing attendance as one of the top three strategies that states, districts, and schools can take to accelerate academic performance.

ED found that the nationwide rate of chronic absenteeism reached about 31 percent in 2021/22—that's about 15 million students who missed a significant amount of school and double what the rate was pre-pandemic. These increases are widespread and affect districts across all achievement levels, district sizes, poverty levels, urbanicity levels, and more. Even the districts that held classes mostly in person during the height of the pandemic experienced significant increases in absenteeism rates the following year.

Missed school means missed opportunities to learn. Chronic absenteeism can account for up to 27 percent of the post-pandemic test score declines in math and up to 45 percent of the test score declines in reading. There are also social-emotional consequences and long-term impacts associated with chronic absenteeism. Addressing chronic absenteeism involves understanding the root causes of students' absences and implementing diverse strategies at all levels (state, district, and school) to support their attendance and overall well-being.

Chronic conditions and contagious illnesses are among the most common reasons for absences.

Absenteeism has been a longstanding concern for students with chronic illness. Asthma, for example, is a leading cause of health-related school absences, and it can be aggravated for students attending schools with poorly ventilated classrooms. Asthma was also the most prevalent health condition among students in a study we conducted with the District of Columbia Public Schools. When a school is aware of students' chronic health conditions, it can work with those students, their teachers, and their families to coordinate needed services and create healthy learning environments—at home as well as at school.

Potentially contagious illnesses (including COVID-19, which remains a threat) raise different issues because sending a contagious kid to school poses risks to teachers and other students. Health policies and how strictly they're implemented vary widely from one school district to the next. Recently, Attendance Works put out recommended health guidance that encourages families to send kids to school unless they're too sick to participate. But doing so is a judgment call for caregivers—and it is likely that the pandemic experience will make many schools cautious for the indefinite future about allowing sick students in the classroom even when their caregivers have sent them.

Kids staying home for a health-related issue don't have to sit idle.

Absence from the school building doesn't mean learning has to stop.

Although most students' experience of remote learning in the wake of COVID-19 was less than ideal, there were some positive outcomes and lessons learned. For one, schools significantly increased their capacity to integrate technology and implement distance learning models. Though students typically learned less remotely than they learned in person, they at least learned something. Schools are now in a much better position to engage kids remotely in informed and equitable ways, and students and families are familiar with the process.

Many districts are already implementing more flexible attendance policies that take advantage of remote learning. In states like Maine, New York, Alaska, and Minnesota, some districts are replacing snow days with remote learning days. In addition to snow days, Minnetonka Public Schools successfully used a remote learning day so teachers could more easily host parent-teacher conferences. In Georgia, students in the Fulton County School District can substitute up to 5 absences per semester (with a maximum of 10 per year) with a remote learning day.

Under the right conditions, remote learning can offer a way for students absent from the building because of a health-related concern or because of a school health policy (such as the five-day COVID isolation or fever-free for 24 hours without the use of medication) to maintain learning momentum.

Asynchronous, ad hoc remote learning for sick students will look different depending on grade level.

Students who have iPads or laptops and use online learning management tools like Google Classroom can more easily communicate with their teacher and access assignments and learning materials from home. Teachers may be able to direct students to online versions of textbook materials and/or share links to free educational websites to support continued learning. For younger students, printed at-home learning packets may be something that schools could offer during the winter months when acute illnesses are most common. Parents and families can communicate with educators by email or other approved applications such as Class Dojo or Remind to ensure their children are receiving assignments when they are out of school.

To help schools and teachers find ways to keep students learning when they are home, REL Mid-Atlantic has several resources focused on remote learning, from explorations of evidence, promising practices, and online learning applications to using culturally responsive practices in support of equity.

We're talking with our REL Mid-Atlantic governing board members later this month about how states, districts, and schools across the region are working to address chronic absenteeism. What creative strategies are your districts implementing? We'd love to hear from you! Email us


AnnaMaria McCutcheon

AnnaMaria McCutcheon
Deputy Director for REL Mid-Atlantic

Laura Dyer

Laura Dyer

Connect with REL Mid-Atlantic