Could Pandemic Schooling Bring an End to Perfect Attendance Awards?

Between remote learning, a lack of access to internet, and health concerns, we should not be focusing on attendance during a pandemic.

In a time when some students are learning from home, quarantining is necessary after contact with someone positive for COVID-19, and any health concerns—a cough or fever, for example—warrant a sick day, how are educators planning to deal with attendance during the pandemic? Do those perfect attendance awards at the end of the school year even make sense anymore?

“I have always worried about attendance awards,” says Karen Gross, an educator, author of Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Strategies and Solutions for Educators, PreK–College, and former senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Education. “They reward students not for learning but for being present. They reward students who don’t have chronic illnesses or who don’t have family dysfunction that keep them home, including to deal with parents or younger siblings. In today’s world, there is vastly more risk if one sends a child to school who is ill. Just to keep an attendance record intact, one could be jeopardizing the health of other students and teachers. COVID-19 changes the equation.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents to avoid chronic absenteeism—aka missing about 10 percent, or 18 days, of the school year—to avoid things like poor test scores, dropping out, and potentially even teen substance use. According to the AAP, “Children who are chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade are less likely to read on grade level by the third grade,” but it’s much more common with older kids.

So it's understandable why many schools began rewarding good attendance, but does it still make sense—in 2020, in the middle of a pandemic—to continue this practice?

“We need to rethink attendance policies,” says Gross. “We punish non-attendance with suspension. How ridiculous is that? What about more understanding of why a student is absent? Might a safe quality school environment facilitate attendance?”

One thing the AAP does take into account: The unavoidability of consistently missing school when it comes to things like chronic illness, anxiety or depression, or conditions such as ADHD or autism, which research has found lead to more days out of school.

School classroom of students with raised hands, back view
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Now throw in a months-long pandemic, where students who attend school in-person are asked to stay home if they’re not feeling well or have recently come into contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19, students who can’t adequately log on for remote learning due to a lack of resources, and students who may need to miss class due to the death of a loved one, and the whole idea of tracking attendance at all seems so unimportant.

Shouldn’t we teach our kids to listen to their bodies and rest when they need to? To take mental health days to recharge, especially at a time when so much of their sense of normalcy was stripped away. To prioritize health and family over simply receiving some sort of “award” at the end of the school year. And who says that just because kids are physically present—either in a classroom or an at-home set-up for learning—that they’re mentally present and engaged?

According to Eileen Carter-Campos, a third grade teacher in Newburgh, New York, perfect attendance from March to June was celebrated with a certificate on Google Classroom and a personal phone call to show appreciation. “I believe our school will continue to celebrate in this manner and I will continue to do what I have done to celebrate them,” she says, but also understands the importance of taking time off when needed.

“As a COVID survivor myself, I would say, if they can work through it, sure, but if they can’t, take the time,” says Carter-Campos. “I would never penalize my scholars for placing their health first. It's important to remind scholars that they must show their body grace and take time if needed. It's what I did when I was diagnosed.”

For Meredith Essalat, author of The Overly Honest Teacher and principal of Mission Dolores Academy in San Francisco that's fully remote to start, rewarding students for being at school and making academics a priority through attendance awards is going to have to shift. In the past, students were rewarded for attendance each quarter so they'd still have time to earn an award later in the year if they needed days off at some point. "We will certainly resume this same dedication to student wellness and well-being when we return to full and normalized teaching capacity, when all students can be at school at the same time together," Essalat says. "Anything prior to this would prove inequitable and unfair."

For now, while remote learning is the name of the game, there will be no awards for attendance. "We have set stringent expectations regarding student involvement and attendance in their online learning, and we are focusing more on the intrinsic cultivation of students showing up to class to learn and grow in knowledge versus seeking to do it for a certificate or medal," she says. "We also realize that it is impossible to be fully equitable in awarding attendance recognition when students are facing so many—often insurmountable—challenges including reliable WiFi, possible illness related to COVID, or the transition from one learning environment to another during the school day based upon their parents/guardians’ work schedules.”

Part of the issue also comes down to parents who have been taught to push on through struggles, hurry back to work after baby, or aren't adequately supported by the government or employers to take time to heal, bond with family, or even take much-needed leaves of absence. Vulnerable workers can't take time off, and figuring out child care for a kid home from school is impossible. Parents need help, especially in the face of COVID-19, but they're not getting it.

“Attendance prizes mask student disparities and reward the wrong things,” says Gross. “The old adage that showing up is half the battle doesn’t cut it for me. Showing up isn’t enough. Understanding absence does make sense. Perfect attendance rewards kids who can be present; it hurts other kids. In the time of COVID, we can get rid of these approaches and replace them with way more valuable honors—for creativity and participation and kindness and independent thinking. How about that?”

Yes, how about that?

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