MERIDEN — Data shows that over the past two school years the numbers of city students considered chronically absent from school has increased.
So with a new academic year less than a month and a half away, student attendance will be a top priority for school officials.
Daniel Crispino, director of school leadership for the elementary schools, said attendance teams will be created at each school to engage with students and families as part of an overall effort to ensure students regularly attend.
According to preliminary data for the school year that just ended, nearly 29% of Meriden’s public school students missed enough school over the course of the year to be considered chronically absent. During the previous 2020-2021 school year, 23% of students were considered chronically absent.
Both represent significant increases in absenteeism rates since the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival in the spring of 2020. By comparison, during the pandemic-disrupted 2019-2020 school year 13.6% of Meriden students were considered chronically absent. The year before that, the rate of chronic absenteeism was around 15%, according to absenteeism rates reported by the State Department of Education.
Chronic absenteeism is defined as having missed 10% or more of school. In Connecticut, where the school year is 180 days, 10% equates to 18 days of class.
Increased absences statewide
Statewide data for the 2021-2022 school year isn’t yet available. However, statewide data from the prior school years showed increases in absenteeism across the board, with urban school districts among the most impacted. Statewide, chronic absenteeism hovered around 10% during most of the school years leading up to the 2019-2020 school year, which was disrupted by the pandemic. The following school year, the statewide chronic absenteeism rate nearly doubled, to 19%.
The increases weren’t uniform. In some suburban school districts, like Southington and Cheshire, state data showed other trends — including flat rates of chronic absenteeism or slightly declining absenteeism rates. For example, in Cheshire, chronic absenteeism declined from around 6% for the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years, to 4.4% in the 2020-2021 school year.
While the figures show general increases in absenteeism, a closer look at Meriden’s data shows the most significant increases have come in the younger grades — particularly elementary school. In some cases, the rate of chronic absenteeism more than doubled.
For example, second grade. A snapshot of chronic absenteeism rates showed that for the 2019-2020 school year, about 9.3% of second graders citywide were considered chronically absent. A year later, in the 2020-2021 school year, 22.5% of all second graders had missed enough school to be considered chronically absent.
Public health concerns and fears around the spread of COVID-19 prompted educators to encourage families to take a cautious approach – if their children had a sniffle or scratchy throat, mild symptoms, they were encouraged to stay home. State and federal guidelines around quarantining students exposed to COVID also impacted attendance, Crispino said.
So outreach, through family school liaisons at each school and partner organizations like the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club, will be part of a larger effort to stem the chronic absences trend.
Other pandemic-related concerns
Alvin Larson, research and evaluation specialist for Meriden Public Schools, pointed out that chronic absenteeism is not the only lingering concern as a result of the pandemic. The school district has seen greater numbers of students, particularly its youngest, struggling academically as well as socially and emotionally.
That is because students’ social emotional skills, many of which are learned and developed in early grades, were not as fully developed as they likely would have been during pre-pandemic school years. Secondary school students appeared to be less profoundly impacted in this way.
Larson authored a blog post on the topic published by the Albert Shanker Institute, an education think tank.
In it Larson wrote, “Elementary school students have had a much more difficult time than secondary school students in adjusting to the effects of the COVID Pandemic.” The blog post cited school climate and other surveys as part of its data gathering.
In addition to decreased achievement in academic areas like math and reading, teachers observed decreases in behaviors described as “prosocial.” Suspensions of elementary school aged students also increased by more than 40%, Larson noted.
Meanwhile, students’ perceptions around having support from teachers and family also decreased, while levels of anxiety increased, according to Larson’s research.
Reaching out to families
Orlando Valentin is now assistant principal at Hanover Elementary School. Before that, he was a fourth grade teacher at Pulaski Elementary School.
While at Pulaski, Valentin became a member of the school district’s Learner Engagement Attendance Program, which was established more than a year ago in multiple school districts statewide as part of an effort to support students who struggled with attendance and disengaged during the pandemic.
Valentin said the program established LEAP teams at each school. The teams consisted of certified and non-certified staff, who each received training. Team members conducted home visits. Valentin was the leader of a team that consisted of another teacher and an English language tutor.
The purpose of the visits was to start conversations with families.
“We would go and visit students in their homes, or if their families weren’t feeling too comfortable, we would meet in the Meriden Public Library, or at the Meriden Green,” Valentin said, adding that research shows, “if we can meet families where they’re at, go into their homes, into their communities and have a conversation, it takes out the power and hierarchy of them coming into a school building.”
Valentin said the school district has always strived to improve attendance — “because we know kids can’t learn if they’re not in school. But what we do more is look at why aren’t kids coming to school.”
The phone calls and visits help, as do providing academic and other incentives to encourage school attendance.
Valentin noted that holding engaging activities, like field trips and concerts, also help to establish schools as welcoming places.
When interacting with families struggling with school attendance, Valentin said it’s important to make the interactions positive, not punitive.
“Instead of judging, we can say, ‘How can we help you? Do you need resources?’” Valentin said, adding the overall goals are to help students get back into normal routines and to connect families to resources when they need them.
“At the end of the day, every parent wants their child to do the best. Maybe some parents don’t have the knowledge or the resources to make that happen. That’s where we come in,” Valentin said. “We’re not here to judge. We just want to know, ‘How can we support you and your child to come to school every day and on time?’”
Board of Education President Rob Kosienski Jr. acknowledged the impact of pandemic related messaging on school attendance over the past two years.
“We encouraged kids and families to have their children stay home when they didn’t feel well,” Kosienski said. “We didn’t want to take any chances, to give an opportunity to spread disease or get anyone else sick.”
Obviously, that would have impacted absenteeism, Kosienski said, adding, “Attendance is a priority.
“You need to attend school to be successful in school. You need to be in class to be successful in class. Kids who are in front of a teacher are successful,” he said.