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Chronic absence: What’s keeping kids from school?

  • Public school enrollment plummeted during the pandemic
  • Thousands of students remained unaccounted for by the 2021-2022 school year
  • Outside resources and individual case management could help with retention

(File: Getty)

(NewsNation) — Schools nationwide continue to grapple with chronic student absence brought on by social and economic challenges that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barriers like access to transportation, financial or housing instability and faltering feelings of belonging hinder students’ desire or ability to make it to the classroom each day, according to recent reports and analyses of chronic absenteeism.

Now, experts say getting young people back in school will entail a tiered approach including a surge of resources and individualized attention.

What is it?

Chronic absence is considered missing at least 15 days of school in a year, according to the United States Department of Education.

Unlike truancy, which counts only excused absences, chronic absenteeism includes all missed school days whether they are excused, unexcused or enforced such as a suspension.

Adversity including poverty, health challenges, community violence and family circumstances can all hinder a student’s attendance, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

How bad is it?

Earlier this year, an analysis by The Associated Press, Stanford University’s Big Local News project and Stanford education professor Thomas Dee revealed absences of about 230,000 students across 21 states couldn’t be accounted for.

Public records didn’t show they’d moved to another state or signed up for private school or home-school, according to the AP’s report.

Over time, missing school can lead to missed milestones, including difficulty learning to read by the third grade, achieving in middle school and graduating high school, according to the non-profit program Attendance Works.

Attendance Works estimates chronic absence has more than doubled from the more than 8 million students, pre-COVID-19.

Where is it happening?

Attendance tracking can be inconsistent, but the AP reported earlier this year Alaska led in absenteeism, with 48.6% of students missing significant amounts of school. The absenteeism rate was higher for Alaskan Native students, at 56.5%.

Washington, D.C., New Mexico and Michigan followed, with 48%, 40.4% and 38.5% of students who were chronically absent, respectively.

Nationwide, it’s mostly likely to affect high school students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Factors like money, housing instability, health, transportation, anxiety, depression and bullying all played a role in driving kids away from school, according to the AP.

A separate analysis by Attendance Works and the Connecticut Department of Education found students living in low-income communities and students of color were more likely to be chronically absent in the fall and winter.

Those communities also faced high levels of COVID-19 disease and death, loss or reduction in income, limited access to health care, and housing and food insecurity and exposure to trauma, according to Attendance Works.

How did the pandemic affect it?

More than a quarter of students missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year, compared to about 15% pre-pandemic, according to the AP and Stanford’s research.

That’s about 6.5 million additional students who were considered chronically absent.

Public school enrollment took a significant hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, too.

The AP and Stanford’s analysis showed that in 21 states where data was available, enrollment fell by about 700,000 students between the 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years.

Once home and private school and out-of-state moves were taken into consideration, a remaining 230,000 were still unaccounted for, according to the AP’s report.

What are the proposed solutions?

An environment that engages students and encourages regular attendance takes several factors into consideration, including physical and emotional health and safety, adult and student well-being and emotional competence, belonging, connection and support, and academic challenge and engagement, according to Attendance Works.

Once attendance has become a concern, Attendance Works encourages schools to take a tiered approach to both tracking and improving student attendance. That includes collecting and reporting attendance and chronic absence data in a timely and comprehensive way so support can be made available if attendance starts to fall.

The group also recommends that districts partner will school and community resources to help work around the barriers that complicate getting to school.

Responses should vary, too, depending on the extent of a student’s absenteeism. For example, a student who has missed 10% of the school year should receive personalized attention so they are better engaged, according to Attendance Works.

Students who have missed 20% or more of the school year, however, might benefit from more intensive support by involving other resources such as health, housing and social services and other interventions based on the students’ and family’s individual needs.


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