It’s been said that we are creatures of habit, which begs the question: What happens when major life events, such as a pandemic, disrupt daily routines?
For schools, one of the downstream effects of quarantines and virtual schooling was the erosion of habits like showing up to school on time, every day and ready to learn. In some schools across the country, rates of absenteeism reportedly tripled during the health crisis. Even Canyons School District, which prioritized keeping schools open, saw a marked increase in students coming late to school or missing classes.
“This was to be expected,” says Student Services Director Brian McGill. “We were asking people to stay home if they were sick and to undergo COVID testing. Everyone was doing their best to keep up with their studies at school and duties at work while doing their part to keep friends, family, and neighbors healthy and safe.”
What worries McGill is even now that health guidelines have relaxed and schools are operating much as they did before the pandemic, higher-than-average rates of absenteeism persist.
Prior to the pandemic, from Aug. 26-30, 2020, Canyons District’s average attendance rate was 96 percent, which is pretty normal for the start of the school year. A year later in the throes of the health crisis, the attendance rate during those same three days slipped to 88 percent. This year, even as schools have resumed near-normal operations, it’s at 89 percent.
Canyons is making a concerted effort this year to promote prompt and regular school attendance. When parents registered their children for school, they were encouraged to review “Show Up” attendance pledges at home. With September being School Attendance Awareness Month, schools are also launching attendance challenges with prizes for classrooms and grade levels that show the biggest attendance gains. Individual students will also get to compete for prizes by submitting social media videos and memes describing what showing up means to them, whether it’s at work and school, or for their friends, fellow students, and family.
“We realize students are still being cautious about staying home when they are sick, and that’s a good thing,” McGill says. “At the same time, we’re really trying to stress the importance of showing up for school. We know academic success goes hand-in-hand with good attendance. We also know that it’s important to build good attendance habits early in the school year, because, as students make friends, connect with teachers, and find success in their classes, the habit becomes self-reinforcing.”
Good habits can be hard to start. But once you get rolling, behavioral research suggests they become part of what you do and who you are. One researcher, University of Southern California psychologist Wendy Wood has estimated that as much as 43 percent of people’s actions are habitual.
“In life we get what we pay attention to,” McGill said. “We are a reflection of our habits, good and bad.”
Did You Know?
- Just missing 1 or 2 days every few weeks can cause a student to fall behind in reading and math.
- By the 6th grade, absenteeism is one of three signs that a teen may drop out of high school.
- By the 9th grade, attendance is a better predictor of graduation rates than 8th grade test scores.
- Attending school regularly helps children feel better about school and themselves.
- Even as students grow older and become more independent, families play a key role in making sure they arrive safely to school on time every day.
Schools have staff and resources to help families who are facing health or transportation challenges.