Students can’t help being absent because of COVID. We need to help them, not label them chronically absent

Angela Burley teaches 6th grade World Cultures at Sarah Zumwalt Middle, a Dallas ISD school. She is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow. – Photo courtesy of Teach Plus



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Editor’s note: After the winter break, Dallas ISD students returned to class Jan. 5.

Jan. 27 was the first time I had seen Bryan in 2022. When I asked where he’d been, his response was, “At home with COVID.” Bryan was exposed and then had to care for his younger siblings who were subsequently exposed. Ultimately, he missed an entire month of school and was labeled chronically absent. After almost two years of the pandemic, we still have no systems in place to help students like Bryan make up for lost instructional time.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10% of days, equivalent to 18-20 days, in a school year for any reason. In the first semester of this school year, 26 of my 94 students had been absent for more than nine days because of COVID-19. With block scheduling, that is an equivalent of being absent for three weeks. When these students returned to school, it was impossible to get them caught up. Some would come to tutoring but most were overwhelmed and were never able to fully recover.

The impact of absenteeism is best understood within the context of social disengagement, reduced student achievement, and increased rates of high school dropout. This is the reality that Bryan is experiencing as his achievement wanes due to COVID-related absenteeism. This doesn’t mean that Bryan isn’t trying – in fact he is double and tripled-booked for after-school tutoring. But he is up against an ineffective accelerated learning system that we’ve put in place over the past two years. When Bryan returned to class, he tried to do the work but could not attend my social studies tutoring because he had conflicted math and reading tutoring, considered more important because these are tested subjects. So, what can be done?

First, I believe using virtual conferencing technology such as Zoom or Google Meets for high-impact tutoring should be a part of the solution. While there is no substitute for in-person learning, pandemic-tested technology can still be useful as we move into a post-pandemic society. We should use the Elementary and Secondary School Relief Funds to pay teachers to tutor students after school, from our homes, virtually. This is an opportunity to keep the tutoring sessions small, between one and three students, and to rotate throughout the four key contents: reading, math, science and social studies.

Students, parents and teachers must also work together to make the most of virtual teaching and learning. I believe this communal connection is the missing link to how virtual instruction has been administered in the past and its success or failure. Last year, to encourage participation in after-school tutoring, I included games like musical chairs, scavenger hunts or 20 questions. I regularly had 10-20 students and one committed grandmother in attendance. I attribute the success of the tutoring to us getting together as a community.

Most of all, we need parents’ understanding and support. Parents are educators’ biggest allies, especially when we have built relationships with them and can join forces with them to help motivate students. For example, when I was teaching a lesson about manufacturing and the levels of industry, I learned that Sarah’s mother worked at the Hello Fresh factory. Sarah’s explanation of her mother’s job really helped other students in my class to understand what manufacturing was like. Weeks later, I had a behavioral issue with Sarah. When her mother came to the conference defensive and frustrated, I was able to speak positively about Sarah and tell her mother how helpful it was for her daughter to help the class understand her job. Then, I was able to speak with Sarah’s mother about her child’s behavior. This type of relationship building between parents and teachers can be the glue that can help otherwise unengaged absentee students thrive in a virtual learning environment.

Rather than ignoring the problem like we have been doing, I call on the forthcoming Texas Commission on Virtual Education to consider students like Bryan and Sarah as they commence their work. These are simple solutions to a truly devastating problem.  Students can’t help being absent due to COVID. Good educators know that all students can learn and will do everything in their power to facilitate students’ academic success. I refuse to believe that students like Bryan can’t be helped. We must do everything we can, including utilizing technology and virtual education, to ensure that all students can succeed.


Angela Burley teaches 6th grade World Cultures at Sarah Zumwalt Middle, a Dallas ISD school. She is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow.


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