Pandemic attendance. How bad was it in Galesburg schools? And is it improving?

Samuel Lisec
Galesburg Register-Mail
Galesburg High School held the first day of in-school classes on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. Chronic absenteeism jumped from 13% to 45% during the 2020-21 school year. 
(Photo: STEVE DAVIS/For The Register-Mail)

GALESBURG — In 2020-21, Galesburg's Community School District 205's rate of chronic absenteeism was triple compared to the previous year prior and was double the rate of nearby school districts.

The district's main tool for tackling chronic absenteeism — a metric which is defined by students missing 10% or more of school days in a year — is its outreach program. District 205's outreach workers aim to keep students in class.

The program gained increased importance and investment due to the pandemic, as outreach workers were first challenged to help students adjust to class at home and later worked to get students back inside school buildings.

“Every kid was told this is the new normal, you're doing school from home, you're going to log into a device,” Chad Thompson, an outreach worker in the district said. “Now we're back to the old normal, which is to them, new again.”

Chronic truancy jumps from 13% to 45% in 2020-21

Chad Thompson, one of the district’s outreach workers, acknowledged chronic absenteeism in District 205 is “a lot higher” since the pandemic began.

Forty-five percent of students in District 205 were chronically absent in the 2020-21 school year, according to the State Board of Education’s annual Illinois Report Card. In 2020, only 13% of students in the district were chronically absent.

Thompson, who finished his second year as an outreach worker in 2020-21, said that it has been particularly daunting for students to return to class in person who missed key developmental years for social interaction.

“You take kids that were in 7th grade when the schools closed and you're now enrolling them in high school. There's a lot of change in who a student is from the age of 12-13 to the age of 14-15,” Thompson said. “Then you look at kids that are sophomores. They went as sophomores, they're coming back as seniors. Some, by age, went from leaving as 16-year-olds to coming back as adults.”

Outreach worker: Some students reluctant to re-enter classrooms

Brian White, who has worked as an outreach worker in the district since 1998, echoed that the outreach workers are trying to “work our way back” from the pandemic. 

White said students have also been reluctant to re-enter classrooms in-person because they don’t want to expose COVID-19 to family members at home who have serious illnesses or are immuno-compromised.

“We still have families that are hesitant regarding the virus,” White said. “We have some that just fell into habits that made it more difficult to come back to school.” 

More generally, White said students tend to miss school because once they get into the habit they may become fearful to return, they are dealing with an interpersonal issue with friends or bullies or they don’t have the basic resources they need to be in or get to class. 

“They don't want to be singled out, walking back into something they don't know what is going on,” White said. “It could be something, and it has been, ‘My kid doesn't have shoes,’ or ‘We don't have clean clothing,’ or ‘My car is not running and I usually transport them to school; I don't have any way to get them to school.’”

While outreach workers say the pandemic has challenged student attendance, the district’s rate of chronic absenteeism in 2020-21 was still double the state average for chronic absenteeism that year and double what other nearby districts, such as Monmouth-Roseville District 238 and Knoxville District 202 saw in 2021.

Chronic Absenteeism for 2020-21 school year

  • Galesburg District: 45.2%
  • United School District: 28.7%
  • Monmouth-Roseville District: 21.8%
  • Illinois Schools average: 21.1%
  • Abingdon-Avon: 17.9%
  • ROWVA District: 17.9%
  • Knoxville District: 15.9%
  • Williamsfield District: 14.7%

Information provide by Illinois State Report Card

Superintendent John Asplund said that the size of District 205 and the makeup of its housing plays an impact on its rate of absenteeism.

"The outlying districts from us in our region — the Monmouth-Rosevilles, the Knoxvilles, the Uniteds and the ROWVAs and the Abingdons — they are more like each other than they are like us,” Asplund said. “We're a bit unique in our region. We're bigger, we're more diverse, we have a little more of a transient population because we have more housing that is geared for that, more rental properties.” 

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This is the first day of school in 2021 at Galesburg High School. The district has added eight outreach workers to help students get to school and stay in school. 
(Photo: STEVE DAVIS/For The Register-Mail)

Galesburg schools hire 4 outreach workers, buy 6 cars

The district has added four new outreach workers to its program, bringing the total number of outreach workers to  eight in the district at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year.

The district has also bought a total of six new cars for the outreach program — four in 2021 and two in 2022 — to help outreach workers conduct home visits. 

“When we're asking the outreach workers to go out and meet with the community, vehicles have gotten damaged, they were putting wear and tear on their vehicles, and we felt like it was the right thing to do to provide them with vehicles,” Asplund said. “But they're left here at night, obviously."

Though the outreach program helps tackle chronic absenteeism in the district, Asplund said that the district’s timing of investment in the program is coincidental. The superintendent said that the outreach program was largely diminished when he joined District 205 in 2017 and that, in light of receiving more state funding, the district had already planned on bolstering the outreach program regardless of the pandemic.

That being said, Thompson said that the outreach program has still become more aggressive since the pandemic.

"Nowadays you see a kid miss one, two days, right away for an unexcused absence we're calling the family, maybe we're shooting them a text on our work phones,” Thompson said. “Then if we're seeing three, four days in a row, — where maybe before the pandemic that's what triggers the call — now we're doing home visits to make sure everything is OK.”

At the elementary school level, White said it is difficult to hold students themselves accountable for their attendance. 

But in the last year and a half, the outreach program has implemented “active incentives” — such as allowing a student to give the morning announcement on the intercom or have lunch with a teacher — in order to bump up student attendance. 

White also said that the district’s investments will make the outreach program more useful as they can now give rides to students to school or maintain “continuity” between schools with outreach workers keeping an eye on early signs of chronic absenteeism.

“A lot of the same kids that Chad is trying to find (at the high school level), they're kids that we were trying to find 10 years before,” White said.

Chronic Truancy by Galesburg School

  • High School (9-12): 56%
  • Junior High (7-8): 60%
  • Lombard (5-6): 42%
  • King (K-4): 33%
  • Silas Willard (K-4): 18%
  • Steele (K-4): 28%

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Outreach workers aim to remove attendance obstacles?

Thompson and White stressed the outreach program is focused on more than just admonishing students and families for bad attendance. The outreach workers said their goal is to communicate with students and problem solve whatever obstacles are in their way to attending class. 

This means that sometimes outreach workers will rouse students out of bed in the morning, give them rides to school or appointments, connect families with local resources and deliver modems to households that lack internet. Thompson said the program delivered between 500-600 modems last year.

“There's been a couple families I've built up really good trust with this year that they'll shoot me a text first saying, 'Hey my student is really struggling this morning. Any chance you can call me right now, and I'll get them on the phone?' " Thompson said. 

“We really want the community to trust in what we are doing through these calls. ... We're calling because we want to help and we will want to help your student and your family make school as enjoyable and as simple as possible.”

White said the outreach program also tries to communicate to parents the correlation between school attendance and school performance.

“We're trying our best to work with parents and stress the significance of being at school everyday and having regular attendance habits and the connection between poor attendance and poor academic gains,” White said.

What impact have the outreach workers made?

The 2020-2021 school year was the first year the Outreach Program was implemented in GHS, and Thompson said improvements are already being seen. Galesburg High School went from seeing 74% of its school days attended in 2020-2021 to 85% of its school days attended in 2021-2022. 

“Yes it is still below the state average, but it's starting to trend in the right direction at the high school,” Thompson said.

The Illinois State Report Card lists the state average for student attendance at 93%.

White said elementary schools in the district saw about 92% of their school days attended during the 2021-2022 school year, which is a rebound from when White said the district’s elementary schools saw an upper-eighty percent of their school days attended in the 2020-2021 year.

But White said the district’s elementary schools are still below their “lofty goal” of seeing 94% of their school days attended.

“We have 300 plus kids that are at 90% and above (attendance), but we have to target those 90% and below kids because we have some that miss 60 days of school or more at the elementary level and that's over a quarter and a half of the school year,” White said. 

Asplund said the district’s overall attendance rate “is still not where we want it to be,” and attendance in GHS in particular is an area of concern on which the district will continue to focus. But Asplund also said that there are encouraging signs of the outreach program’s impact.

Thompson said he had one success story in which a student with medical issues fell over a grade and a half behind in credits during their earlier years of high school. But through working closely with Thompson, the student was able to graduate in the spring.

“We stayed in constant contact with his mom, I met with the student daily, he was one that we were able to get a drivers license for because he was never able to take drivers ed with his health issues,” Thompson said. He said the student recovered over a year and a half of school and graduated in June.