Count Us In! Toolkit 2021

Count Us In! Working Together to Show That Every School Day Matters

Chronic absence is a problem we can and must address. To tackle this challenge, which has become more urgent during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Count Us In! toolkit offers messaging and positive engagement strategies, key concepts, and tools.

Chronic absence is typically defined as missing 10% of the school year – or just two days a month – for any reason. This is not just a problem in middle and high school: It starts in kindergarten and preschool. It is a problem in districts of every size, whether they are urban, suburban or rural. Prior to the pandemic, 8 million students were chronically absent. In many communities during Covid-19, the numbers have risen.

Chronic absence is a leading indicator and cause of educational inequity. Like the warning light on a car dashboard, chronic absence alerts schools to pay attention to individual students whose absences add up. It reduces the chances that students will read by the end of third grade, achieve in middle school and graduate from high school. Institutional biases and lack of adequate and equitable investments contribute to the disproportionately high levels of chronic absence among students of color, students with disabilities, and those who live in low-income communities.

When chronic absence affects large numbers of students, or disproportionately affects certain groups of students, it is typically a sign of systemic failures that make it challenging for students to attend. These include unreliable transportation, lack of access to healthcare and housing displacement. Practices that push students out of school settings, such as punitive disciplinary policies, and a lack of teachers or curriculum that reflect cultures and ethnicities of the student population, are also barriers to attending and engaging in school.

With the help of federal recovery funds, especially those in the American Rescue Act, districts have more ability than ever before to invest in a variety of solutions to reducing chronic absence, including better data systems, professional development, family engagement, tailored interventions, increased access to health services and community schools. See our blog post, How Covid Relief Dollars Can Help Improve Attendance.

The good news is that we can improve chronic absence when schools and communities collaborate with students and families, starting in the early grades, to identify and overcome barriers to getting to school that may have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Addressing concerns about health and safety will be critical to supporting the return to in-person school. Reestablishing regular routines of attendance can help create comfort and safety for students and families, especially following the chaos and unknowns that occurred during the pandemic. Reminding students of the connection between attendance, learning, and achieving their hopes and dreams helps all of us remember why going to school every day is so important, even when it isn’t easy.

Together we can nurture a culture of engagement and attendance. This starts by helping everyone in the community recognize they have a stake and a role. It requires careful attention to data, communications and strategic, locally tailored interventions to address attendance challenges as soon as chronic absence emerges as a problem.

This PBS NewsHour video, “Empty Chairs” illustrates what is possible. It showcases how the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) made a difference, prior to the pandemic, through its positive, problem-solving approach that engages families and students and draws upon the assets of the entire community. During AAC  Webinar #3, (webinar recording forthcoming), CMSD Superintendent and CEO Eric Gordon shared how he is building upon that experience to inform his approach to learning and recovery for the 2021-22 school year.

Even though we know that many districts have their hands full with reopening school buildings, we urge finding a way to involve students and families, community partners and health care providers in recovery plans. What we do in the short term can support strategic action for the long term.

We’re using this ninth annual Attendance Awareness Campaign to encourage everyone to remember that students are more likely to attend school if they feel emotionally and physically safe, connected and supported, and believe they can learn and achieve. Read our Key Messages to learn more. Under this year’s theme, Rebound With Attendance! we are emphasizing the role everyone can play.  We are encouraging the review of attendance data on an ongoing basis, to help identify, early on, students in need of additional support as well as practices and policies in need of revision. This information can be used to activate supports to prevent students from missing so much school they fall academically behind.

While local action is always essential, states can play a leadership role in encouraging districts, schools and community partners to work together to improve student attendance. State departments of education can make a difference with attendance and chronic absence data because they can identify patterns and trends that need solutions at scale and convene key stakeholders to develop and implement meaningful solutions. Improvement strategies informed by attendance and chronic absence data are invaluable for rebounding from the adverse impact of Covid-19 and reducing educational inequity. Read our blog post.

Since 2013, the Attendance Awareness Campaign has engaged thousands of schools and communities. Over 100 national and state organizations are now working together to ensure everyone can participate, from a single school to a citywide coalition to a national or state organization. Sign up here to receive regular updates and tips for improving attendance. Browse the links below and click on what interests you.

A special thank you to our Attendance Awareness Campaign corporate sponsors for their commitment to help ensure that every child is in school every day. Their generous investment makes it possible for us to provide you with free strategies and materials. Thank you Kaiser Permanente, EveryDay Labs, and French Toast!

Attendance: A Community Imperative