As schools reopen, we need to rapidly track and trace absent learners

Schools are scheduled to open today at a time when school attendance is the lowest in two decades. Fewer learners have returned to school this year compared to pre-pandemic attendance figures, and the dropout rate has tripled.

“The longer it takes to get our learners back to class, the less likely they are to return,” says Merle Mansfield, Programme Director of the Zero Dropout Campaign.

According to new data published by researchers involved in the NIDS-CRAM survey,[1] an additional 500 000 learners have dropped out of school since the start of the pandemic. The poorest households are worse affected, particularly in rural areas and those that have experienced economic challenges during the pandemic.

Bring back absent learners

“It’s imperative that schools rapidly ramp up their reintegration programmes by tracking absent learners to ascertain why they haven’t returned to school, and to ensure disengaged learners get the right type of support,” says Mansfield.

“To build safety nets around our learners, educators must alert parents and caregivers via letters, phone calls or text messages when a child is absent to avoid them getting deregistered and falling through the cracks of the schooling system,” Mansfield explains.

As we grapple with ongoing disruptions to schooling, educators must keep better records of individual learners, she adds.

Prior to the pandemic, teachers often neglected taking daily attendance registers — a simple mechanism that would help to identify learners who are chronically absent.

By tracking individual learners’ absenteeism, academic performance and behaviour, educators can better understand their struggles and pathways through school. This allows schools to identify learners that are at risk of dropout, and design well-informed support programmes, as early as possible.

Better communication with households and communities

“During the hard lockdown last year, we found that when learners were able to maintain contact with their teachers through instant messages or other methods, they felt contained and supported,” Mansfield points out.

When schools closed for a protracted period in 2020, educators were forced to find new ways to communicate with their learners, using low-tech or no-tech options, such as sending worksheets home.

“We encourage schools to also think creatively about how to keep caregivers connected to their children’s schooling while learners spend longer periods at home,” says Mansfield.

Keeping open channels of communication between schools and households starts with ensuring that teachers have up-to-date contact details for parents and caregivers.

Here are some of the ways in which schools and households can work together:

  • Schools can leverage community structures like churches and street committees to urge learners to return to school and to trace those that are unaccounted for;
  • Schools can use community volunteers to track absent learners by going door to door;
  • Schools should have a dedicated team to monitor re-integration efforts;
  • Schools should ensure that their staff members are ready to re-admit and re-orientate learners who have been away from school for a long period.

“To get our learners back to class, we need schools and households to work together – each recognizing their joint responsibility in supporting learners to stay in school,” Mansfield concludes.



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