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1 in 5 Illinois students was chronically absent last year -- including over half of Rockford students. How do you help that many students make up for lost time?

When a student is chronically absent, it means they’re missing 10% or more of the school year. That’s missing, at the very least, around 18 days of school.

The problem was made significantly worse during the pandemic, but there were high rates of chronic absence before COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic only increased the statewide rate by 3%.

But in districts like Rockford Public Schools, where absence rates were high before, they’ve skyrocketed since the pandemic.

One in every five students in Illinois was chronically absent. In Rockford, it wasmore than half. 61% of low-income students was chronically absent. And as for Black students? Nearly 70%.

Morgan Gallagher is the Chief of Schools at Rockford Public Schools. He said he was disheartened to see so many Rockford students missed that much time. For one, he said, he thought the district took the right approach through the pandemic.

“I say we were frustrated," he explained, "because I want to say we were the largest districts in the state of Illinois that maintained in-person instruction as a modality.”

Unfortunately, keeping an in-person option all of last year didn’t help. He said about half of students chose to learn remotely last year. Of those, Gallagher said only a very small proportion returned in-person when restrictions eased in the spring.

“That becomes problematic,” said Gallagher. “Many of our students that chose remote were some of our more disadvantaged students, the students that are really furthest away from opportunity in many regards.”

So, now that everyone is back in-person, how do you help get those students back on track? When you’re talking about half of all the students in your district, Gallagher said it’s difficult to know where to even start.

“It's hard to attribute which ones do I need to focus on. Which ones have that causal connection to chronic absenteeism or not,” he said. “Like if I am looking at my (Illinois) School Report Card that just came out and I'm seeing, ‘Oh, geez, our IAR literacy scores really dropped last year!’ Well, how much of that do I attribute to chronic absenteeism?”

It’s up to schools to determine that correlation versus causation. But, what do schools do to help students who are chronically absent in a normal, non-pandemic year? And is the approach the same now, just at a larger scale?

Steve Wilder says yes -- it’s both personalized and wholesale.

He’s the superintendent at the Sycamore School District. Before the pandemic, only about 7% of their students were chronically absent. Last year, it ballooned to 36%.

“Even your staffing is kind of built to support those 6%, or whatever the case may be," he said. "When it's 36. totally different ballgame. But the approach is the same.”

Many districts are using COVID relief funding to lower class sizes, implement social-emotional curriculum and hire more social workers.

Keli Freedlund says it’s hard to quantify how disruptive the pandemic has been for each student. She’s the superintendent at Kinnikinnick, where typically low rates of chronic absence went through the roof last year.

She said third-graders haven’t had a normal year since Kindergarten.

“You have a student who you can see they are in third grade, that tip of the iceberg,” said Freedlund. “What you can't see is all of the things that perhaps some were missed out, that's below the surface of the water.”

She said their plan to get students back on track is a three-legged stool. One is core instruction: teaching third-graders the third-grade material. The second is targeted skills: working in small groups to fill in gaps in areas multiple kids struggled in. The third is personalized based on individual students’ unique context. Both personalized and district-wide.

“Learning and training on best practices, restorative practices, trauma-informed practices to help our teachers connect with our students, she said. "That's really what it comes down to. It's building relationships with our students.”

Back in Rockford, Gallaher said many schools are hiring parent and community liaisons to reconnect families to their schools and teachers. They’ve also been spending COVID dollars on social workers -- when they can find workers to hire.

Most districts are banking that fewer quarantines this year will lower chronic absence numbers far below where they were last year. But, in many districts, COVID didn’t create these issues.

And it’ll take both district-wide and individual interventions and support to help their students get back on track -- and stay in class.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.