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Understanding and Addressing the Surge of Chronic Absenteeism

Understanding and Addressing the Surge of Chronic Absenteeism

Author: Guest | Blog |

The national average rate of chronic absenteeism in K-12 schools has significantly increased in recent years. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 14.7 million students, or 29.7 percent of the student population, were chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year. Early data from the 2022-23 school year indicates minor improvement, with 27.85 percent of the student population being chronically absent. These data reveal a substantial increase from the pre-pandemic rate of 16 percent in 2019.

Chronic absenteeism is generally defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days a year, equating to 18 days in a typical 180-day school year. All absences are counted for chronic absenteeism, including excused, unexcused and suspensions. This definition differs from truancy, which only calculates unexcused absences. While the U.S. Department of Education cautions against scrutinizing data before and after the pandemic because of varying adherence to the current definition of chronic absenteeism — some districts reported data on truancy rather than total absences — there has been an undeniable jump in chronic absenteeism since 2019.

A student’s academic performance and future opportunities may be negatively affected by chronic absenteeism. Research shows that chronically absent students are at higher risk for adverse outcomes later in life, including diminished health, increased involvement in the criminal justice system, and fewer job opportunities.

The impact of chronic absenteeism reaches beyond the individual student; the nation as a whole is affected. Lower high school graduation rates caused by chronic absences can result in an underemployed population, negatively affecting economic productivity and stability. Chronic absenteeism tends to be more prevalent in economically disadvantaged communities. This exacerbates existing social inequalities by limiting access to quality education and opportunities for upward mobility. The cumulative effect of chronic absenteeism can result in a less educated and more disengaged citizenry, affecting the overall social fabric of a nation. This may contribute to challenges related to civic participation and community development.

In 2023, the White House released a blog post stressing the issues of chronic absenteeism, its impact on learning and the need for a comprehensive response to address it — a response requiring educators, families and policymakers to work together to combat chronic absenteeism. For many school leaders, the first step is determining why students are not attending school.

Recently, EdSurge spoke with Jody O’Brien, assistant superintendent of student services and equity at Marlborough Public Schools, Massachusetts, about her district’s approach to chronic absenteeism. O’Brien, who has three decades of experience in the education field, coordinates several departments, including special education, English language learners, nursing and counseling. Her district is one of many that realizes they need robust data-tracking systems to effectively and swiftly identify at-risk students and get to the root of what is causing chronic absences.

EdSurge: How has the idea of chronic absenteeism changed over time?

O’Brien: Many school leaders previously asked about the absence type: excused, with a doctor’s note or unexcused. In the past, schools focused on students with many unexcused absences. These students are considered truant, and there has been a punitive approach to addressing these absences, such as through the court system. Now, we are focusing on all absences that a student has — excused or unexcused — because regardless of the reason, the student is missing valuable clarion instruction that can’t be replicated.

Also, before the pandemic, many districts looked at attendance data as a percentage of the whole. For example, our high school has an average daily attendance rate of 97 percent, meaning 97 percent of our students are here. However, with the pandemic forcing a closer look at increased absences and the academic impact of those missed days, we need to consider how some students miss that face-to-face time with their teacher frequently. Even though the attendance rate as a whole could seem good, too many students miss more than 10 percent of school days.

What patterns of chronic absenteeism exist within your school community, such as specific grade levels or student populations?

One thing that stands out is the percentage of elementary and middle school students who are chronically absent: around 20 percent. It is typical to see a larger number of high school students marked as chronically absent, but at the elementary and middle school levels, there has definitely been an increase since COVID.

We have also noticed an increase in the chronic absence of English language learners. Around 40 percent of our students come from families where English is a second language, and 29 percent of our English language learners are chronically absent. Our district is really just starting to dig into the data to understand the patterns, but this information helps to identify populations that are critical to address.

What barriers hinder students from attending school regularly, and how can these be addressed?

The research on chronic absenteeism indicates that barriers include health problems, food insecurity and other financial reasons. There is not just a one-size-fits-all answer to chronic absenteeism; there are too many components here. For example, if the issue is that a student lacks access to healthcare or a provider, we need to connect that family with a wraparound service coordinator who could help the family apply for health insurance. If the barrier is food insecurity, we need to connect with a food pantry or other organizations to help the family meet their basic needs so the student doesn’t have to worry about food and can focus on coming to school.

Our district is just starting the systematic process of identifying and tracking chronically absent students. We need to do that before we can determine the barriers specific to our students.

We need to know the why before we can provide an effective solution for chronic absences.

[Massachusetts] has given grant funding to underperforming districts with higher percentages of chronically absent students. We are using that funding at the high school level to establish two re-engagement coaches. The role of those coaches is to work with a caseload of students who are identified as chronically absent, develop a relationship with them and have conversations to uncover why they aren’t coming to school.

Developing a positive relationship with a teacher or coach, creating a sense of belonging within the school and having a sense of safety are huge factors in reducing chronic absenteeism, especially for students of color and English language learners.

Having a relationship with the family is also important. The school needs to work together with the families to help them understand the importance of their children going to school, not just for academic reasons but for their social-emotional and mental health needs. Chronic absenteeism also impacts post-secondary outcomes such as financial well-being down the road.

We have implemented a strategy using a communication tool that allows teachers and parents to communicate across different languages; it has this translation feature to support our more common native languages of Portuguese, Spanish and Haitian Creole. Not only are teachers able to connect quickly with parents, but we are also doing this in a non-punitive way to address absences. A teacher might say, “I missed seeing Johnny in class today. I hope he is feeling better. Is there anything I need to know about? How can I support you?” This relationship-building is an important step in reducing barriers and addressing chronic absenteeism.

EdSurge Logo and Partner

Jody O’Brien
Assistant Superintendent of Student Services & Equity
Marlborough Public Schools, Mass.

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