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COVID precautions keep students out of school, even if they just have the sniffles


Schools across the country have largely returned to in-person learning and classes, but COVID precautions often keep students out of school if they exhibit symptoms that could just be a common cold. While those rules may help stem the spread of the virus, they also raised concerns that some children may fall behind and stay out of school. Hedy Chang is the founder and executive director with the nonprofit Attendance Works. She joins us now from San Francisco.

Thanks so much for being with us.

HEDY CHANG: Pleasure to be here, Scott.

SIMON: What's absenteeism like these first couple of months of the school year? Can you tell yet?

CHANG: We're starting to see data. What we know from last year is that chronic absence increased significantly. We're starting to see data from a number of states that showed even further increases. I think the hope was that when we got schools open, because they're engaging, it's an easier way to educate. We know that way they educate kids that kids would be back, but we reopen schools at the moment that we have a surge in the delta variant. And so in California, you're seeing some data. For example, school districts that showed a doubling almost of chronic absence from last year during the pandemic, which was already an increase in chronic absence.

SIMON: A double - double what it was last year when it was first perceived to be a real problem.

CHANG: Yes, I think we're maybe seeing doubling, sometimes tripling of chronic absence levels from before the pandemic. Now, prior to the pandemic, we had about 8 million kids chronically absent in the country. You know, we're seeing places with almost half their kids chronically absent, which - let me just define that for a second - is missing 10% or more of school. That's at least two days a month. That's almost a month of the entire school year for any reason - excused, unexcused and suspensions. And in the beginning of the school year, missing a couple of days is so troubling because learning is scaffolded. What I mean is learning builds on each other. You know, if you're in a geometry class and you miss out on a couple of the core concepts, it's really hard to keep staying engaged and passing.

SIMON: Yeah, there's a skyscraper that might not get built - is what we tell our children. Yeah.

CHANG: Absolutely.

SIMON: What are some of the factors that seem to be at work?

CHANG: Well, certainly returning during a surge in the delta variant was hard, but it's not just 'cause kids had COVID. It's because we had all these COVID protocols. You have a lot of kids who might not have access to PCR tests, so maybe they're out for 10 days, you know? But another challenge that's happening is kids now are back together in school, and they haven't been together. They haven't had to learn how to be around other kids, resolve conflicts. So you're actually also seeing huge school climate issues going on, an increase in bullying - so kids being pushed out of school for those challenges. Kids come to school when we have positive conditions for learning in place. when school is a place where kids feel physically, emotionally healthy and safe. When you have high levels of chronic absence, it means one or more of those conditions aren't in place. And we really need to put in place the programmatic and systematic supports to make sure that we recreate, reinstitute those positive conditions for learning.

SIMON: Do school systems have the personnel to be able to follow up on absenteeism, to contact families, to try and find youngsters to work with them?

CHANG: So this is a huge challenge. And again, I think school districts are trying their best, but we have to really use our data to invest in expanding the people who can be allies in this work, supporters in this work. So we do know that schools are facing sub shortages and staffing shortages. And I am sometimes talking with schools who - they used to have an attendance clerk, but now the attendance clerk is now doubling as the office receptionist and doing three other things because they're short staffed. So it is really challenging.

On the other hand, we have community providers that might be partnering with schools. The other thing is families can support each other. You can create more mutual support networks, but we're going to have to intentionally create them because the shift to remote learning meant that in some places, families don't know each other. But we also are learning a ton about, how do you use virtual means to create connections, to create community? And we have to draw upon those new strategies that really use every bit of technology and opportunity to create connection.

SIMON: Hedy Chang is founder and executive director of Attendance Works. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHANG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "YOUNG FOLKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.