Strategies to Fight Absenteeism During Distance Learning

Richard Lawrence
Richard Lawrence
Elementary school principal; M.A. in School Administration
Young girl sitting in an office chair disinterested in her Zoom class.

There are few other issues that will highlight the income gap like absenteeism. Absenteeism is a huge problem when school is in session regularly. Talk to any public educator, whether administrator or teacher, in a middle to lower income area, and this will be one of the things they mention when you ask about challenging issues they are facing. This is not to say that absenteeism can’t be a problem in an upwardly mobile community. It is just far less prevalent.

Now add a pandemic and distance learning to this already very difficult issue and you are going to have a potentially overwhelming issue to deal with. Parental cooperation is vital for true success in school for students.

Think of this as an effort to mitigate and not eradicate, simply because you are not going to be successful eliminating it. I do not say this to discourage you by any means. I just want you to know and be ready for the enormity of this problem. Now let’s lay out the strategies and resources that are at your disposal to assist you in this mitigation effort.

Why Is Fighting Absenteeism Important?

This is a very easy question to answer, but it’s worth laying out the core reasons.

  • Academic Success: children need to be in school regularly to receive instruction. Inconsistent reception of instruction will mean less comprehension, less understanding, and thus less mastery.
  • Social Well Being: Some of our youngsters come from dysfunctional or unstable environments. School gives them a large part of the day where they can experience belonging, unity, love, caring, and compassion.
  • Physical Well Being: Add food insecurity to the list of problems that are faced regularly by some and may be even worse during a pandemic. School is a place where children can receive a healthy and nutritious breakfast and lunch. Moreover, school is also a place where children can experience a comfortable building with regulated and proper temperatures and air quality.
  • Access to Resources: School also offers students access to materials and social resources they may not have at home. Learning tools such as tablets, laptops, and books are readily available as are social services, ranging from school counselors, child study teams, and outside agencies that are contracted with the school and district.

Know Your Students

This is extremely important on the district and school level. District-wide programs such as OnCourse, Genesis, Power School etc. can do a lot of the work for you in determining who is most at risk. A list of chronically absent students prior to the COVID-19 outbreak is readily available, as is who receives free and reduced meals.

The level of internet accessibility can be determined through surveys and other basic interaction with the school and district. Most parents aren’t shy about it. If they need help with getting online or receiving a tablet or laptop, they will let you know.

In terms of mental health and other social resources, it is up to you as a school leader to make sure you are clear as to what you offer. It is your responsibility to build this bridge to your school community, advertise your resources, and seek out those you think may need help. Put the time in and do the work.

Provide Resources

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up funding from the federal and state governments we normally do not see, specifically through the CARES Act. One of the few bright spots of this experience is many schools and districts have been able to meet the one-to-one initiative of each student receiving a tablet or laptop. Many districts did not expect this for years to come, but now we have it.

Of course, relying on federal and state funding long-term is not a strategy. The counseling and other social services I mentioned are typically always there. The difference this time is there is a greater need for it. You as a school leader are responsible for making your community aware of what is available for students and families.

The other main change you may have not seen before the outbreak is the providing of meals free of charge over the summer. In my district, this included breakfast and lunch and was offered to all families regardless of their income levels. It was widely taken advantage of and a large degree of appreciation was expressed.

Family Outreach and Engagement

This is a challenge in the midst of a pandemic, because social gatherings are limited by state and community regulations. The family and community nights my school normally has have been shelved. We rely more than ever on technology, ranging from old technologies like phone calls and mass mailings to newer technologies, such as social media. The school regularly advertises and posts on our Facebook Page. I like to capture the day-to-day events of the school and post them on our page. Simply put, you have to get creative when it comes to engaging an reaching families.

Sometimes we simply have to chase down parents when their children are not completing online work assigned to them. This unfortunately does happen, as we are on a hybrid schedule and students are working at least three out of the five days of the week from home. There isn’t anything fancy about this. You have to be persistent and email and call as much as it takes to get a response and some action. Your charge as a school administrator or teacher is to use the tools that are available to you to engage and reach out to families as much as possible.

Recognize Improvement

It is always a nice thing to reward and recognize students for good and or improved attendance. I would never recommend not doing this. However, do not expect this practice to yield enormous results on a school- or district-wide level. Think of it in terms of a “Chicken Soup” remedy. It isn’t ever going to hurt, but it’s not going to provide a cure either.


I intentionally was blunt with the reader in this article. Never allow yourself to be misled by fairy tales about fixing the attendance gap in American schools. You need to know and accept the reality of what you will face, more so if you are going to be working in a district with significant poverty and economic struggles. This is hard work. Your job is to utilize all these strategies to reduce the problem as much as you can. As was told at the beginning of this piece, mitigation, not eradication, is the reasonable goal in front of you.

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