Courtesy of Attendance Works.

HARTFORD, CT – As education throughout the state moves toward a sense of normalcy after COVID-19, some students are left still feeling disconnected from school, piling up their absences. 

“We know that some kids got lost and we need to find them and we need to get them back in school,” Jeff Leake, president of Connecticut’s Education Association, said. “The faster we do that as we get into next year, the better off everyone will be whether it’s teachers, students, or their parents.” 

According to a new study by Attendance Works, students tackling remote learning had the highest levels of chronic absence this school year, missing 10% or more school days. Students who attended classes in person had better attendance records, while hybrid students fell in between both categories. 

“Chronic absence in the start of the school year serves as an early warning sign that a student will be chronically absent in the winter months,” according to the report. “For example, in Connecticut, students chronically absent in the fall were 17 times more likely to be chronically absent in the winter, when compared with peers with satisfactory attendance.” 

With new information and studies rolling in, many educational leaders are emphasizing the need to focus on getting students in seats next school year. 

“Connecticut’s approach to absenteeism data has given us the chance to demonstrate just how meaningful and valid absenteeism data can be, especially during the pandemic,” Kevin Gee, associate professor at the University of California, Davis, said. “We also can now confirm that chronic absence early in the academic year still serves as a strong early warning indicator of absenteeism in the later months of the school year.” 

Leake emphasized a main reason for the increase in poor attendance is the lack of connection that students encounter while being distanced from a normal educational experience. 

“We’re most concerned about reconnecting with kids and we know that isn’t going to happen probably in the first couple of months of next year,” Leake said. “It might not even happen next year in terms of really reestablishing that school learning connection that kids need to know is there and is going to be there.” 

Kasey Kelliher, a junior from Quinnipiac University, said her disengagement while attending classes has been the hardest part of remote learning. 

“I did attend most of my classes because even if the pandemic happened, I still had to show up,” Kelliher said. “But even when I was there, being in the setting and mindset that I was in allowed me to mentally disconnect, so it was hard to actually retain anything.” 

The data from the study revealed that lower-income and Black and brown students had higher rates of chronic absence in the fall and winter, especially as these student groups that were among the hardest hit by COVID-19.

“The concentration of poverty in these communities and the web of systemic challenges families encounter – higher levels of COVID-19 disease and death, loss or reduction in income, limited access to health care, housing and food insecurity, exposure to trauma – all complicate school attendance,” the report concluded.  

Connecticut education officials said they would use the data from Attendance Works to make decisions about next year. 

“In Connecticut, data drives our decision-making because it is critical to inform how we most effectively address the root causes of chronic absenteeism and ensure positive student outcomes,” Acting Commissioner of Education Charlene Russell-Tucker said.

“Our focus on collecting and leveraging that data in real time throughout the pandemic has allowed us to focus resources across schools and districts to strengthen and build on the systems of support in place to help ensure students are attending and engaged – both remotely and in-person.”

The Education Department recommended that districts prepare for the fall by requiring daily attendance for elementary students and by period for secondary students, establishing a consistent definition of a day of attendance across all learning modes, consider adopting half-days and ensuring attendance is collected and reported separately for in-person and remote instruction.

Educational leaders are hoping that the collected data will serve as a guide to ensure all students receive the best educational opportunities in a post-pandemic school setting. 

“Since states and districts can only address and act on what they can see, having data and results in hand for the current school year versus after the fact will be important in driving decision making,” Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, said. “Our hope is that other states can learn from Connecticut’s approach to absenteeism data.” 

But until then, many officials are at work to ensure the educational experience returns to normal as soon as possible. 

“I think we’re all trying to move in the same direction to make sure that we understand that this is going to take a while to get back to where we need to be,” Leake said. “But, we’re going to work on this together and we’re going to get it done, students are going to be successful.” 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misattributed the report. The report is from Attendance Works.