Expert Tips on Tackling Student Absences During the Fall and Winter

For educators and administrators concerned about student attendance, the fall and winter months present plenty of challenges.

Holidays—and the excitement before and re-entry afterward—can create obstacles to keeping students engaged in the classroom.

Seasonal illnesses, which are spreading quickly this year, can drive up absences and knock affected students off-track academically. And sometimes families struggle to determine when to keep sick students home.

It may be particularly important for school leaders to tackle these issues this year, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, which advocates for measuring and addressing chronic absenteeism to improve schools.

Rates of chronic absenteeism—often defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days—may have as much as doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. As schools work to help students rebuild habits and routines that may have eroded during remote learning, they should be mindful of factors that could interrupt their momentum, Chang said.

Here are a few tips for addressing attendance in the fall and winter months.

Plan ahead for low-engagement days

The days before and after holidays can lead to jitters of anticipation or fatigue as students recover from family fun. That can be challenging in the classroom, and it can lead to some excessive absences—and it’s not a new phenomenon as this 2021 Education Week article about plummeting attendance the day after Halloween shows.

Chang recommends schools anticipate some potentially problematic points on the calendar and plan fun events, like spirit weeks, throwing a pumpkin off the roof of the school, or distributing raffle tickets to encourage students to show up.

Educate families and staff on addressing student anxiety

Schools should “encourage people to establish routines and keep to them for the days they are supposed to be in school,” Chang said.

That’s particularly important for students who experience school avoidance or anxiety that can make attendance seem daunting. A string of good days in the classroom can help students face those fears, Chang said. Some schools also help families address practical barriers, like a lack of reliable transportation, to ensure students make it to school on time.

Schools should also train teachers, school nurses, and counselors to recognize signs of stress and anxiety, Chang said. With a careful conversation, a nurse dealing with a report of a stomachache may discover a student needs to talk through their emotions.

Share information about when to keep a child home for sickness

Schools have long made efforts to educate families about what symptoms justify a sick day, using educational posters and letters home to inform parents that a headache may not be enough of a reason to miss class.

The Bloomfield, N.M., district sent such a letter home to families last week, including a graphic about symptoms like fever and conditions for returning to the classroom after an illness.

“As a community, we are still battling COVID-19 and have officially entered allergy, cold, and flu season,” the letter said. “However, it is unnecessary to keep your student out of school for every symptom or illness.”

Such messages fell out of favor during the pandemic, when variants of COVID-19 spread quickly, sometimes by people with limited symptoms like a fever.

Chang said it’s important for students to stay home when they need rest to heal or when they could make their classmates sick. But families can also benefit from messages about how schools handle more common issues, like headaches. And, as cases of illnesses like influenza and the RSV respiratory virus surge, schools could provide targeted messages from local health officials about how to identify and address symptoms.

Host a vaccination clinic

After noticing spikes of absences during winter months, some school districts have gotten ahead of the problem by offering on-site flu vaccinations for students and staff after school or on the weekends.

More districts adopted such practices during the pandemic, offering COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.

The National Association of School Nurses provides resources on hosting school-based vaccine clinics.

Track data and respond to concerning patterns

School leaders shouldn’t wait for missed days to snowball before they intervene, and they shouldn’t ignore absences that are excused for reasons like illness, Chang said.

When students are at home sick and not participating in learning in the classroom or remotely, educators can make efforts to keep them connected to the classroom, even calling to check in.

And regularly evaluating attendance data to look for patterns can help identify unmet student needs. While one sick day in the winter may be typical, a string of sick days on Mondays may indicate a student struggles emotionally to return to school after the safety of home on the weekends.

“To reduce the levels of absences in our schools, we are going to have to have a very intentional, thoughtful long-term strategy,” Chang said.