The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on attendance for some students in Dubuque Community Schools.

The number of students missing 10% or more of attendance days so far this year is up at the elementary, middle and high school level — in some cases, significantly so.

This year, 23.3% of elementary students have been chronically absent, up from 13% in the 2019-2020 school year. At the middle school level, 25.6% of students have been chronically absent, up from 18.2%. At the district’s high schools, 31.3% of students have been chronically absent, up from 27.9%.

“It absolutely is pandemic-related,” said Shirley Horstman, the district’s executive director of student services.

District leaders said this is the third consecutive year in which students have faced some kind of significant disruption to their schedules — disruptions that are reflected in the rates of chronic absenteeism. Students deal with other barriers to attendance as well.

Officials say they are working on ways to reach students who struggle with school absences.

“We want success for all of our students, and coming to school is absolutely correlated to academic success at every age level, as well as just engagement, connection to our schools, relationships with our schools, relationships with our kids and our families,” said Mary Bridget Deutsch, student services facilitator for the district.

Pandemic impacts

Numerous aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic have complicated attendance in Dubuque Community Schools so far this year.

The district has gone through multiple learning models, starting with students alternating in-person and remote attendance days before switching to fully in-person learning, as well as offering a fully online option, Horstman said.

Students also have been absent due to having COVID-19 or having a family member with it. Staff has been extra careful about sending students home if they show signs of illness.

The challenge of accurately taking attendance this year also has played a role. When the district was using its hybrid attendance model, students on at-home learning days had to check in to be counted present, as do students learning fully online.

“That may attribute to some of this — the fact that students are doing the work, but they just forget that step of checking in,” Horstman said.

She said her focus is on the impact to learning when children aren’t at school or tuned in remotely. She noted that nationally, the pandemic has impacted students’ ability to keep up and move ahead in their learning.

“Absenteeism plays into that,” Horstman said. “When students are not attending regularly or are distracted because they’re at home and logged in on the computer … all of those are impacts that are pretty hard to measure, but they are impactful.”

She said she hopes to see chronic absenteeism numbers come down over the rest of the school year as the district uses a consistent schedule and more people are vaccinated.

“Hopefully as more people become vaccinated in our community, there are less families that are being exposed to COVID and less students being exposed to COVID, so that fear factor will go down a bit which will allow better attendance, as well,” she said.

Lack of normalcy

Horstman noted that academic disruptions have contributed to attendance trends over the last three years.

Chronic absenteeism data for kindergarten through fifth-grade students shows the percent of students missing 10% of school days or more climbing from 8.7% in the 2017-2018 year to 10% in the 2018-2019 year, then continuing to rise the next two years.

Horstman connected the figure for 2018-2019 with weather-related disruptions that prompted the district to cancel 11 school days and shorten 10 more. In 2019-2020, the school year was truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with schools closing in March.

Typically, after a lull in attendance during the winter months, attendance starts to tick upward as the weather warms, Deutsch said.

“That’s what national trends kind of show us, where adding those three months would have allowed us to bring those numbers back up,” she said.

Horstman said she hopes that the 2021-2022 school year brings more normalcy.

“We haven’t had a normal year since ’17-’18, so hopefully next year we really can get our arms around this,” she said.

District data also show that in the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school year, close to 28% of students at the high school level were chronically absent. So far this year, the rate has been over 30%

Horstman acknowledged that those numbers are high. For the current year, she noted that older students generally are more independent and likely haven’t had parents reminding them to check in to their classes while learning from home to the extent younger students do.

Other factors also complicate absenteeism for older students, such as the fact that attendance is only mandatory through age 16 and that students sometimes struggle to balance jobs with school schedules. Brain health struggles also can be more intense among older students, which can make it hard to attend school.

“It’s something that we’re constantly working on, to say how do we engage these students and how do we look at our tiered system of supports and make sure that we’re removing barriers,” Deutsch said.

Relationships

Horstman said educators have processes in place to identify when students are struggling with attendance, which allows them to have conversations with students and their families about potential barriers that keep them from coming to school.

That could include connecting students with resources to meet basic needs or looking at students’ courses, where they are behind and what support they can receive.

“It really gets down to that individual student need and then planning to remove those barriers to get them back to school,” Horstman said.

Officials are working on an attendance awareness campaign for next year to reach families who homeschooled their children this year or had them in online learning.

Ultimately, strong attendance is connected to relationships, Horstman and Deutsch said. Having good relationships with adults at school and feeling safe are key for students to come to school.

“That’s really what we’re doing,” Deutsch said. “It’s at every level and every building.”

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