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Seven Ways to Help Students Catch Up After a School Absence

My son, Ari,  missed four days of school last week. He had a planned absence for Rosh Hashanah on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, he returned home from school lethargic. By dinnertime, we discovered he had a 103.5°F fever! The fever persisted for two days so he was absent on Thursday and Friday. (Thankfully, he was Covid-negative.) Despite the high fever, Ari felt “good enough to go to school.” I asked his teacher if she wanted me to do any work with him on Friday. She told me not to worry about it since there was a class project and assessments he’d be missing. 

While I was unhappy Ari missed nearly a week of Kindergarten, I know he will catch up quickly. But, not every child rebounds quickly after missing school. Many teachers I’ve worked with feel as though it’s their responsibility to catch students up — by reteaching minilessons — during independent writing time. And while that’s noble, it isn’t sustainable since it takes time away from the rest of the class.

I’m concerned we’re going to face high rates of student (and teacher) absences as we head into the wintertime due to colds, flu, and Covid variants. In an effort to get ahead of this, here are some ways I suggest to teachers I consult with to help them catch students up after time away from school.

HAVE WRITING PARTNERS HELP EACH OTHER: When I lived in NYC, I taught two students, Francesca and Tyresha, who begged to remain writing partners every time we finished a unit of study. (That’s when I typically shuffled students into new partnerships.) Not only did they help each other grow as writers through their peer conferences, but they helped one another constantly. One of the girls missed quite a bit of school that year. As a result, her writing partner would gather mini-charts, checklists, etc. and place them in her writing folder. Upon the return to school, the girls asked for a peer conference so that the one who was present could turnkey the minilesson and help catch her writing partner up. When I realized what was happening, I asked the girls if the rest of the class could fishbowl a post-absence conference so they could see how one student helped her friend to catch up. By teaching my students how to help their peers, I began to put myself out of the job of holding onto absent students’ paperwork and was able to stop reteaching minilessons, which took my time away from the rest of my class. Plus, it helped all of my students learn how to be more accountable as writing partners.

UTILIZE WRITING PODS: Not every writing partnership will be as dutiful to each other as we’d like them to be. I often suggest teachers form writing pods of two to three partnerships who can function similarly to Francesca and Tyresha. Basically, someone from the pod acts as an absentee buddy to catch up with one of their members upon their return.

CREATE MISSING WORK FOLDERS: Get a portable filing box — where every student has a manila folder — where you can file any papers that were disseminated on a given day. While you can certainly slip papers into folders, consider asking the student’s writing partner (or pod) to do this for you.

DIGITIZE CHARTS AND HANDOUTS: If you listened to Melanie Meehan and I talk about charts in a recent podcast, then you know we’re fans of charts that are tangible. However, it can help students who are absent to have access to materials at home, especially if they’re in a situation like Ari where they cannot come to school with a fever, but can work from home. In addition, providing digital access to charts in the learning management system minimizes the amount of paper in a student’s mailbox post-absence.

RETEACH IN A SMALL GROUP: Imagine several students are absent on the same day. Gather them together to teach them what they missed. Just as you’d gather a few students for a small-group lesson to teach the same strategy, you can gather several students together to reteach during independent writing time. 

USE AN EXTRA HELP PERIOD: Some schools (usually grades five and up) have a built-in time of every school day for remediation and enrichment. If students need your help catching up on what they missed in writing, then have them work with you during that time.

RECORD THE MINILESSON(S): Multi-day absences are tricky to manage. It is unfair to ask students to catch each other up after missing several days of school. While I know many parents/caregivers request a work packet ahead of time if they’re planning a family trip, I always found this time-consuming for me to plan and extra work to grade. Plus, no work packet ever equals a week of class time. 

As much as I know many of us don’t like videotaping ourselves, it is the solution that protects other instructional and personal time. You don’t need complicated equipment to make this work. Attach your phone to a small tripod that will only capture you (since some students cannot be videotaped due to privacy reasons) and your chart and/or a digital whiteboard. Have a student start and end the video. Upload it to your learning management system so students can access it from anywhere. 

The seven ways are listed in the text body of this blog post. This image highlights each bullet point.
Click on the image to enlarge.

I was intentional about not assigning students to make up missed work as homework. While I know that was my go-to way of helping students catch up after an absence early in my career, my beliefs about homework have evolved since I began working as an educator nearly two decades ago. After an illness, few kids want to go to school all day to then come home and do more work, especially when they may not feel 100% better. And while I know we often have to work later when we are absent ourselves, I think it is unfair to make young children do this. Therefore, what I’ve presented today is a menu of possibilities that go beyond the complete-the-work-as-soon-as-you-return-to-school / deadline extension many of us grew up with. 

Please leave a comment to share other ways you catch students up after an absence.

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