MONSON — The Monson Public Schools Administration has developed multiple approaches to address the district’s increased chronic absenteeism rates, Superintendent Cheryl Clarke and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Katherine Watts announced at the Feb. 7 School Committee meeting.

Chronic absenteeism, which refers to missing 18 days or more in one school year, has risen by 72% in Massachusetts since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clarke explained. She divided the causes of this increase into three main factors: impacts from the student, from family members and from the school.

This increase is most significantly seen in elementary and middle schools, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This, in turn, impacts students’ scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, Clarke said.

In Monson, chronic absenteeism rose from 13.5% of students in the 2020-21 school year to 34.6% in 2021-22. Furthermore, students at risk of becoming chronically absent rose from 9.6% to 41.1% during the same period. These students missed 10-17 days of school, Watts explained. This data only minimally reduced in the 2022-23 school year with 28.8% chronically absent and 35.2% at risk.

At Granite Valley School, chronically absent and at-risk students have increased every year since 2019-20, while absenteeism percentages dropped slightly in 2022-23 at Monson High School, Watts reported.
However, at the high school, seven students in grades 10 and 11 who were chronically absent have dropped out this year, Watts noted, stating that this number was high for a single year.

“For the number of students in 10th and 11th grade, the number of students that have dropped out is alarming,” Watts said. “Thinking about the lived experience of these kids. In what of would have been middle school for them, being out for COVID and then having the reenter. There’s significant mental health issues, school avoidance, phobia, anxiety … this is an adaptive issue. It’s very complex.”

Clarke also added that some students dropped out to begin working in order to support their families, who are financially struggling.

To address these issues, Monson Public Schools created four teams to target specific concerns. These teams focus on attendance issues across Granite Valley and Monson High as well as districtwide, Clarke said.

Some of the strategies to reduce chronic absenteeism created by the District Attendance Team include following up with students after absences, counselor intervention, bi-annual health flyers, home visits and including a discussion on attendance during parent-teacher conferences, Clarke said.

Another way the district is addressing this issue is through the Attendance Recovery Academy. This is a DESE-created initiative where students can earn missed school days through attending a session during February vacation, April vacation or a Saturday in March, Watts said.

Currently, five students from grade 7-8 as well as eight from grades 2-4 have signed up to participate in a session. Sessions run from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in March and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. during February and April, Watts said. Transportation, two meals and a snack will also be provided during sessions.

The program is partially funded by a $10,000 grant, Clarke said.

Moving forward, the district plans to release a guide on the school website that informs parents of when students should stay home or attend school while experiencing illness symptoms, Clarke said. “Within the next month or so,” staff will also be trained in the district’s new Attendance Intervention program on PowerSchool, she said, explaining that the program will track intervention and attendance in addition to keeping parents updated on this data.

While preschool and kindergarten students are not included in the district’s data for chronic absenteeism, the administration is also looking to analyze attendance at the Early Childhood Center in order to address barriers that may lead to absenteeism in later years, Clarke said.

“I think maybe the pandemic changed the mindset of the importance of education at a young age,”

School Committee member Alison Morgan stated while discussing elementary students’ high absenteeism rates. “Whereas before, it was so important to get your child to kindergarten and have them go to school and you don’t miss unless absolutely necessary and I do think that it needs to be a culture shift.”

Morgan commended Clarke and Watts for their work to address the issue, saying, “I’m really excited that you’ve put this much thought and effort into it because I think a lot of other districts are not even close to this far into it.”

In addition to preventive measures, Watts also stated that the administration is beginning to utilize incentives at Monson High School to encourage students to attend during commonly missed weeks, such as before or after a vacation period. Similarly, the district is analyzing data related to tardy students and half-day attendance.