Family Engagement

Reaching Chronically Absent Students During Distance Learning

Frequent phone calls, emails to parents, and flexible attendance policies can help wayward students get back on track.

February 26, 2021
byakkaya / iStock

For many schools, increased absenteeism has been a by-product of remote learning, and some teachers have internalized feelings of guilt because of it. These self-assessments are unfair because the reasons for increased absenteeism during the pandemic are complex.

Despite the challenges created by Covid-19, many teachers worldwide are reaching absent students and getting them to sign on to class. They are finding ways to get previously absent students to feel connected, cared for, and loved.

School psychologist Jeremy Pearson, who has a PhD in psychology, says barriers that contributed to absenteeism before the pandemic have been replaced with new ones.

“First-order barriers, such as not having an alarm clock or missing the school bus, have been replaced with having poor internet connectivity or confusion about how to access online classes,” said Pearson. “For students who had difficulty getting to school before the pandemic, hiccups in the online access road make it even more difficult.”

More than ever, teachers must understand school attendance policies so their students can be counted as participating in distance learning. Counting students as present by seeing them at their desks or hearing them verbally affirm their attendance doesn’t always neatly fit with distance learning.

“If a student logs in to my distance learning classroom, they are automatically marked present,” said Rosie Gillispie, a middle school teacher in Mississippi. “Students who don’t log in can still be marked ‘present’ if they complete their daily assignment by 11:59 p.m. on the day an assignment is due.”

Erin Alexander-Flores, a second-grade teacher in Virginia, gives her students two weeks to complete an assignment in order to be marked as present and participating. “I have a virtual group and a hybrid group,” said Alexander-Flores. “Attendance is [recorded] by logging in to class or completing work from that day’s material. They have 10 days to get it done before I lose access to amend the attendance."

Teachers must stay knowledgeable of various ways students receive credit for participating in distance learning. This knowledge will help teachers keep reclaimed students engaged and facilitate their academic success.

But what about students who are not engaging with school at all?

Call, call, and call again to reach students absent from real-time distance learning class sessions. Students who demonstrate progress on asynchronous assignments are often considered present and participating in class in a distance learning environment, even if they don’t log in for real-time distance learning class sessions. Still, call these students when they are repeatedly absent to ensure that they’re doing OK.

Ayanna Williams uses ClassDojo to contact families whose third- or fourth-grade children are absent or become disengaged in class.

“I send messages to parents, and I’ll use limited amounts of English,” said Williams, who teaches in Abu Dhabi. “When it’s translated, it translates correctly. If it is something really serious, I contact the school social worker, and they contact parents.”

Gillispie echoed this sentiment. “Between the emails and phone calls, I’ve probably made between 60 and 75 points of contacts with each of my students,” she said. “Students need to be learning. They need to be present.”

If you call and reach voicemail, leave a caring message. Overt acts of care encourage absent students to stay engaged after they report to a real-time online class.

Mental Health Challenges

Students in crisis often look for help from teachers they know and trust. Sometimes the parents of absent students will disclose mental health challenges that their kids are experiencing. Know when and what kind of information to immediately share with a school administrator, counselor, or social worker, or emergency services.

“We have seen so many kids having a tough time during this pandemic,” said Pearson. “Teachers are often the first adults to become aware of students’ mental health challenges. Teachers are the first line of response and have a duty to students to act. Teachers are not expected to be mental health professionals, but they do need to act on behalf of students to connect them to available mental health resources.”

Lack of Technology

When you discover that students are absent because they don’t have a device to get online, know how to guide them. Know how your school or district helps families obtain the technology they need to participate in distance learning. The pandemic has highlighted the digital divide, or the disproportionate access to technology.

Some schools can provide every student with a device. Other schools can provide only one device for every household, leaving multi-child households to decipher how to ration out computer access to multiple children.

Diedra Williams is experiencing the impact of the digital divide while teaching students with special needs in the United Arab Emirates.

“Sometimes I have two or three families living together with one computer in the home,” said Williams. “There could be six or seven kids in the home trying to use one computer. Teachers have to figure out how they can get students who log on intermittently to make progress toward mastering learning standards.”

Once absent students return to class, they need to know their teachers will consistently be there for them. Psychological safety is important. Be consistently present in your regularly scheduled real-time distance learning classroom, and shower students with love, care, concern, and fantastic teaching.

“Building connections is more important than most aspects of the curriculum right now,” said Vicki Anderson, an English teacher and instructional technology coach in Arizona. “Students need a connection to their teacher and their peers.”

By nurturing classroom communities where students feel an abundance of care, we will create conditions that keep students present, participating, and engaged in teaching and learning.

Ltoya Adetunji also contributed to this article. 

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