BY RICHARD SKOLNIK
The Los Alamos Public Schools have faced exceptionally high rates of absenteeism this year, compared to the pre-COVID 2018/19 school year. Every school but our middle school has had increases in the share of children missing 5 to 10% of school days, compared to the 2018/19 school year. At our elementary schools, the share of children missing this number of days has gone up by between 29% and 84%, compared to 2018/19. The share of elementary children missing 10 to 20% of all school days has gone up this year by about three times in two schools, compared to the pre-COVID 2018-2019 school year.*
Given this issue, our Superintendent recently outlined for the School Board an approach to addressing attendance based on: communication; creating a culture of attendance; understanding why students are not in school; and, focusing on proactive, preventative, and effective interventions. The success of the above approach will depend on how it is implemented.
Communication – LAPS communication on attendance in the last several months makes almost no mention of the extent to which illness is driving our present attendance patterns. Instead, it has left many people with the impression that the LAPS believes the attendance issue is driven by factors other than illness. Some families have also reported that school staff have spoken with them in accusatory and disrespectful ways when they communicated about their child being ill. If LAPS has reliable data on the causes of absenteeism, the LAPS should communicate that information to the community. In any case, the LAPS should be more sensitive to the high levels of illness we have seen this year among our children and the burdens that so many families in our community have borne due to these illnesses.
Understanding Absenteeism – Getting a grip on the attendance problem requires a careful, epidemiological and social assessment of attendance data that is collected in a scientifically sound way. However, there are several problems with doing this effectively. First, it requires knowledge of social epidemiology and the epidemiology of childhood illnesses. Second, we need to see data on “medically-related absences” compared to “other absences,” regardless of whether a doctor’s note was presented. This is especially so since doctor’s notes require time and money that many bona fide illnesses don’t warrant and which are a waste of family and health system resources. Third, different schools seem to have different approaches to excusing absences, with nurses being able to excuse absences at some schools but not others. This also makes it difficult to assess the real causes of missed school. Lastly, the middle school data and some of the high school data on absences appear to be anomalous and need careful checking and validation.
Taking a Proactive, Preventive, and Effective Approach – Some schools have already proposed attendance campaigns. However, they do not appear to be well designed, they create perverse incentives, and they risk shaming large numbers of families and students for circumstances beyond their control.
Some Possible Next Steps
COVID has not disappeared and the “only question” for those working in global health is when the next pandemic will occur. In addition, New Mexico faced early and high rates of transmission of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza this school year. We must be prepared for the possibility that such trends, for these and other infections, will continue.
In this environment, I would propose, as a start, that the LAPS take a number of steps to encourage progress with the approach that the Superintendent outlined.
- Create a Position of Director of School Health. The person recruited for this position must be trained in public health, with experience at the level of a school system and in social and applied epidemiology. Among other things, this person would monitor attendance data and liase, as appropriate, with local families, health care providers, county social services staff, and the state Departments of Health and Education. This person would try to understand in real time the extent and type of illnesses that are circulating in the schools and any other factors driving absenteeism. In a timely manner, this person would keep parents informed about health-related information and the measures parents can take to try to keep their children as healthy as possible and in school.
- Create a more uniform approach across schools to excusing absences and make that approach completely transparent to all LAPS families. It will also be important to create a uniform and respectful approach across the schools to communications about absenteeism.
- Launch quickly a well-articulated program for helping to understand and address the learning losses occurring among children who have missed many days of school this year. Much is being said about creating a culture of attendance, which is good. However, little is being said about helping our students who have missed many school days to make up for their learning losses. As the superintendent has suggested, our approach needs to follow the evidence-based causes of absenteeism and must be supportive and not accusatory.
- Immediately stop the proposed incentives for school attendance until the school system can ensure that any such efforts are evidence-based, reflect the root causes of attendance problems, and are well designed. Incentive programs that are well designed maximize effectiveness and minimize perverse incentives and unintended consequences. Depending on what the data show, we may find that the most effective incentive program for improving school attendance is one that focuses on health.
*The data in the first paragraph is from Superintendent Guy’s presentation: Attendance Matters
Richard Skolnik is the former Regional Director for Health for South Asia at the World Bank. At the World Bank, Richard also worked 7 years on education in West Africa and managed the World Bank’s education work on India for 10 years. Richard is a Lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health, taught global health at the George Washington University and Yale, and was the Executive Director for Harvard of an AIDS treatment program for three countries in Africa. He is the author of Global Health 101, Fourth Edition and the Instructor for the Yale/Coursera online course Essentials of Global Health.