At the end of the fourth pandemic-affected semester, some schools still are challenged to return student attendance to pre-COVID levels.
The days when schools award students for perfect attendance are gone. Instead, schools’ main priorities are preventing learning loss while parents become likely to allow their sick children to stay home, no matter the nature of their illness.
Some parents increasingly are becoming more comfortable allowing their children to stay home if they need a break from stress, essentially permitting them mental-health days.
Although schools encourage practices that promote physical and emotional health, some officials are worried long-term attendance drops could affect crucial funding.
Before COVID, it wasn’t unusual for students to attend school when they weren’t feeling well, often because child care options were limited.
But the pandemic has changed attitudes and behaviors.
“If they don’t feel good, they’re staying home instead of just coming,” said Melissa Tortorici, spokeswoman for Texas City Independent School District.
Texas City ISD encourages students who aren’t feeling well to stay home to ensure they’re healthy and get tested for COVID, she said.
On top of that, people are just tired, she said.
“We say, ‘We’re getting back to normal,’ but it’s really taking an emotional toll on people,” Tortorici said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Snap out of it,’ but when you think about this year’s eighth-graders, they haven’t had a normal school year since they were in fifth grade. That really takes a toll.”
Texas City schools had an 89.8 percent attendance rate for the week of Nov. 29, compared with 92.7 percent for the same period in 2020, according to district data.
Normal, pre-pandemic attendance rates for most local districts is in the mid to low 90s.
Compared to 2020, some schools might have a lower attendance rate because schools aren’t offering virtual classes anymore, said Tammy Dowdy, spokeswoman for Dickinson Independent School District.
In the second six weeks of class ending mid-November, Dickinson ISD had a 93.1 percent attendance rate compared with 94.3 percent in the same six weeks in 2020, according to district data. The first six weeks of the 2021 fall semester had a 92 percent attendance rate, compared with 96 percent in 2020.
“The fall of last year was totally different from the fall of this year,” Dowdy said. “We delayed the start of school and had everyone remote.”
It’s common for districts to report attendance to the state in six-week increments.
That lack of virtual schooling means when students quarantine, they don’t have an at-home option to be marked as “present,” even if the school still is giving them work to do,” said Stacy Guzzetta, executive director of student operations for Friendswood Independent School District.
‘YEARS TO RECOVER’
Some districts have seen improvements in their attendance rates, however.
In Galveston, rates steadily have increased this year from 89.1 percent attendance in the first six weeks to 95.2 percent in the third six weeks, as of Dec. 3, according to district data.
First semester attendance rates in the fall 2020 semester stayed between 93 and 94.6 percent, according to data.
District administrators pointed to health and safety procedures implemented at the schools.
“Families see the benefits of keeping kids in school, and students are reacclimating to friends and routines,” said Matthew Neighbors, executive director for secondary school.
Rising attendance rates are encouraging, said Jeff Post, executive director for elementary schools.
“We believe that after going through a difficult season, parents and students have renewed confidence that on-site learning is the best option and is here to stay,” Post said.
Although schools generally have been encouraging students to stay home if they’re sick and have dedicated more time to social and mental health since 2020, administrators agree they’d rather have students in classrooms.
“We want kids in school every single day so that we can teach them and so that we can make sure that they are not just learning but can check on their social, emotional needs too,” Tortorici said. “It’s going to take us I think years to fully recover.”
Absences also play a crucial role in funding for Texas school districts. The state allocates funds to districts per child enrolled but takes attendance into account.
For the 2021 fiscal year, the state allocates on average $6,160 per child to educate, which is roughly $34.22 per day of the 180 educational days required by the state.
The Texas Education Agency in November announced it would adjust the required operational minutes in some instances to help districts increase their attendance percentage. By reducing the number of minutes students had to be in class, the agency gave districts more leeway to receive funding, despite the absences.
“The commissioner may approve the operation of schools for fewer than 75,600 minutes if a disaster, flood, extreme weather condition, fuel curtailment or other calamity causes the closing of schools,” according to an agency release in November.
Students who attend 180 days of school for seven hours will have 75,600 instructional minutes.
Districts highly encourage strong attendance because it’s tied directly to funding, Guzzetta said.
“We’re having to pay that teacher even if there’s two kids absent in her class that day,” Guzzetta said.
Attendance rates in the first and second weeks at Friendswood ISD were 95 and 94, respectively, this year, according to district data.
That’s lower than the same periods in the fall 2020 semester when rates were between 97 and 98 percent, according to data.
Many districts are monitoring potential learning losses associated with both the pandemic and attendance changes.
“Student absenteeism and lost instructional opportunities profoundly impact student learning,” said Patti Hanssard, Santa Fe Independent School District spokeswoman.
Administration has been monitoring student progress to determine effects of learning losses, she said.
“As a district, we will continue to utilize resources necessary to increase those rates to the extent that we are able to navigate through yet another year of the COVID pandemic,” Hanssard said.
If a student is going to be absent for an extended period of time, the teacher works with the child to ensure no instruction is lost, she said.
In Santa Fe, attendance rates were at 93.6 percent the week of Nov. 29, compared to 96.7 percent in the week of Nov. 30 in 2020, according to district data.
LETTING GO OF PERFECTION
Some schools have entirely abandoned awards tied to perfect attendance, long held as a triumphant accomplishment for students who never miss a day in a particular year or from kindergarten through 12th grade.
In the past, Friendswood schools gave awards for perfect attendance and final exam grades had ties to attendance, Guzzetta said.
“All of those are gone,” Guzzetta said. “We stripped those away last year. I don’t know if we’re ever bringing them back.”
The school wants parents and students to feel they can take a day off for health reasons and not be penalized for it, she said.