As chronic absenteeism increased in all grades during the 2020-21 school year, many education professionals formed narratives about why and imagined strategies to address it. As TNTP partnered with school systems through SCORE’s COVID-19 Innovative Recovery Network, we realized a critically important perspective was missing. So we decided to talk to students.


In August 2020, when Robert heard that school would begin but students would attend class virtually, his enthusiasm about an early release for summer became concern about the structure of instruction. Robert wondered how he would see Mr. Williams, his favorite math teacher. Online classes meant less social interaction with teachers and students, and Robert would have to learn in a new environment with fewer resources.

Robert is looking forward to returning to in-person classes next month, but he has lived through at least two major shifts in how school takes place and has missed opportunities to build vital relationships. Not only is he behind on learning, but concrete barriers like a lower GPA, a “chronically absent” label, and credits to recover are also weighing on him.

Between March 24 and April 23 of 2021, we worked with high schools in five school systems and set up twelve focus groups with students who were “critically absent” — a term we defined as missing 20 percent or more of instructional days. Through these focus groups, we spoke with 72 students and learned their perspective about the school year.

  • Jamiyah was used to taking class with the same group of students each year and every teacher knew every student by name. In the remote environment, she no longer knew her classmates’ names.
  • Instead of dropping off his siblings at school, Quinton found himself learning at home with them, fighting for the computer and a quiet space while supporting his younger siblings.
  • Zoe dreamed of attending college but now had fewer conversations with counselors and didn’t realize until it seemed too late how her class engagement could permanently impact her GPA and put her dreams off track.

SCORE’s new white paper — “A Student Perspective On Chronic Absenteeism” — shares more stories and themes we heard from students. Our conversations led to four actions school systems can take this fall to welcome students back and make schools work for students. These are not just strategies to make virtual learning work better but a look toward resetting relationships and rebuilding culture.

  1. Develop support systems that nurture authentic connections and support social-emotional development at school. This starts with positively reengaging chronically absent students — sending a nonpunitive message that they are welcome members of the school community. Setting goals for their well-being and providing structured low-ratio advising and mentoring are also key.
  2. Provide systemwide structures that prepare teachers to build strong partnerships with students and families and communicate high expectations for all students. Engage students and families in dialogue about their experience. Open a line of communication with teachers about providing trauma-informed care as they accelerate learning.
  3. Encourage student agency in course offerings to align with career goals. Ask students about their interests and goals early, help them explore careers, and find innovative ways to match interests with course offerings. These conversations can take place in low-ratio advising and mentoring structures (ideally with time set aside during the school day).
  4. Institute restorative policies that give students viable pathways to improve GPA and attendance records. Consider potential careers paths of critically absent students and identify GPA, attendance, and course barriers they face because of COVID. Consider their feelings about coming back to school and what it will take for them to successfully rejoin a community they have been away from.

The students we spoke with missed being in school, but they need support to make sense of a turbulent year. When Jamiyah lit up talking about the individual conversations her homeroom teacher had once school returned to in-person instruction, it reminded us of the dedication and care teachers put into supporting students this year. We believe allowing student stories to guide our next steps can provide them with a strong start this school year.

Dr. Tanisha Heaston is director of academics at TNTP; Steven LaFemina is a partner at TNTP.