Absenteeism in the Virtual Classroom: The Struggle to Stay Connected

While we are certainly still navigating this new normal, we’ve come a long way in adjusting to online learning. Instructors have discovered how to best present information, administer tests, and keep the discussions lively and engaging.

But in many cases, these instructors are also seeing a sharp decline in student attendance. It can be easy to dismiss the dwindling numbers as laziness; however, the real reasons behind the rise in absenteeism are often much more complex than that. Here are a few scenarios to consider when you find yourself in a class half full:

1)      Essential EmployeesMany students work full time, with some now having to step in as the primary earner for newly unemployed parents and partners. Additionally, students who were already working essential jobs full time may now be experiencing longer hours and a more demanding workload. Supporting themselves and their loved ones will always take priority over coursework; however, offering flexible due dates and other measures of assistance can go a long way in creating a manageable balance between work and school.  

2)      Anxiety—We are living through a largely unprecedented event. It can be difficult to focus on coursework when the world is so chaotic and uncertain. Also consider that, for many teens and young adults, this is the first crisis that they have experienced firsthand. It’s understandable that fear and anxiety about illness, jobs losses, and the future in general are at the forefront of their minds. Be patient with your classes (and yourself!) during these times.  

3)      Limited or No WiFi Access—Some students come from low-income households that have very limited access to WiFi, or no access altogether. A New York Times article describes the plight of one high school student with a district-issued laptop but no WiFi with which to use it. While some organizations, such as the L.A. Unified School District, have taken steps toward providing free internet for students in need, it’s important to remember that technology, for all its convenience, is not always readily available to everyone.  

4)      Feelings of Invisibility—Being one student in the sea of a Zoom room grid can certainly lead to feeling less seen and heard. When you consider the students who already felt invisible in the physical classroom, it isn’t hard to imagine why they’re skipping class meetings altogether. Make sure to periodically check in on your students individually and make a special note to reach out to those with a high absence count. Showing that you care about their success can make all the difference.

This is a unique experience for all of us, educators and students alike, and as such, it presents unique challenges that nobody could have predicted. However, as educators, it is imperative to minimize exclusion and other barriers to learning whenever possible. Drs. Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy say it best: “Perhaps now, more than ever, is the best time to reassure students that they belong in your classroom and you believe in them.” As virtual summer classes begin, remember to continue teaching with compassion, and don’t forget to stop and take care of yourself along the way.

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