RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Richmond Public Schools (RPS) students returned to in-person learning this year after COVID-19 forced the division to go virtual during the 2020-2021 school year.

Or, at least, that was the plan – but attendance data gathered by the division shows that since January of this year, over a quarter of students have been “chronically absent,” meaning they missed more than 10% of school days.

Now, the school division is taking a new approach to the problem, emphasizing family outreach and in-depth data profiles to coordinate a district-wide approach.

At the center are the division’s school attendance and outreach dashboards, which school officials say have been key in coordinating a renewed effort to reach the families of chronically absent students.

Absenteeism rates spiked at the beginning of the school year last Fall, potentially reflecting the impact of a return to in-person learning after a year of online school.

The rate of absenteeism peaked in January after the end of the first semester, with over a third of all students missing more than 10 percent of school days. But the rate now appears to be trending down, and Dr. Shadae Harris, Chief Engagement Officer at RPS, argued that’s a result of the division’s data-driven approach.

“This data has allowed us to make really specific goals for each and every school,” she said at a school board meeting on Monday, March 21.

Nicole Jones, a school board member of the 9th District, praised Harris’s efforts, but said the division would need to remain focused to achieve pre-pandemic absenteeism rates.

“We can collect data all day long and then some,” she said. “However, if we don’t have a place to address it, it’s just data.”

Many of the schools with the highest rate of chronic absenteeism were concentrated in Richmond’s East End, while smaller specialty schools like Open High School and Richmond Community High outperformed the city average.

This 8News data visualization shows the worst – and best – performing schools in the city.

The division’s new approach, according to Dr. Harris, de-emphasizes punitive measures like court intervention and instead focuses on finding the root cause of sustained absences through home visits and connecting students to community resources.

Though Richmond’s approach has shown some success this year, the district may be feeling the pressure to get absentee rates down even further. Chronic absences not only significantly worsen educational outcomes, they can also cost schools a lot of money, since federal and state funding are often tied to attendance rates.