According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Education (USED) in 2015 -2016, over 16% of students in the USA were chronically absent in schools. Chronic absenteeism is a systemic and “hidden” American problem that has existed for decades. 1  Like most disparities, chronic absenteeism has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some schools experiencing rates as high as 40%. 2 While prevalent across the country, disparities are striking: compared to their white peers, American Indian and Pacific Islander students are over 50% more likely to lose three weeks of school or more, Black students 40% more likely, and Hispanic students 17% more likely. 3

What is chronic absenteeism?

The USDE defines Chronic absenteeism as missing 15 days or more of classes annually or 10% of the annual school year, whether excused or unexcused. Chronic absenteeism occurs at every grade level but appears to be more prevalent in high school where about 1 in 5 students are chronically absent according to USDE data. Understanding when students are more at risk will help schools and advocates better understand root causes and environmental factors, and  design targeted interventions to improve student and academic outcomes. 6

For school districts, attendance is a tricky problem. Consistent class attendance is fundamental to academic success, but schools have little control over absences and solving the problem is difficult. Chronic absenteeism can result from a multitude of issues including: contracting COVID, homelessness, instability at home, safety issues, bullying, transportation challenges, appointments outside of school, work obligations, poverty or illness. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these difficulties, even more students appear to be falling through the cracks. And school employees — “stretched increasingly thin by understaffing and absences of their own — are grasping for creative ways to lure students back.” 7

For some students, months of online learning during the pandemic have created solitary, home-based habits that make attending school difficult. For others, absences have resulted from depression and anxiety among students, cases of which skyrocketed during the pandemic and are now overwhelming health care providers. And economic stressors compound student depression and anxiety. COVID-related economic pressures have forced some students to seek employment as soon as they are eligible for work permits. 

Why Chronic Absenteeism Matters

  • Failure to reach academic milestones: Students who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level in third grade. These students are then 4 times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient students. 8
  • Higher school drop-out rates: Irregular attendance is often a better indicator of whether students will drop out of high school than test scores. A Utah study of public school absenteeism found that chronic absence in even a single year between 8th – 12th grade was a predictor of a seven-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out. Chronic absenteeism in lower grades may result in developmental deficiencies; youth may fail to learn fundamental skills like writing, socializing, making friends, public speaking, and reading. Missing out on the opportunity to learn fundamental skills may later limit the victim’s capacity to reach their full potential in life.
  • Poor adult outcomes: High school dropout incidences caused by chronic absenteeism have been linked to poor outcomes in adulthood, including poverty, disease, mental illness, poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system.
  • Emotional and mental health issues: When students are chronically absent they must scramble to catch-up with assignments and learning, which often causes additional worry and anxiety.

Assessing and Removing Barriers

It’s imperative to address environmental factors, from mental wellness to food to shelter to transportation in order to address this growing problem. Creating wrap-around solutions and early interventions to address chronic absenteeism takes the collective team work of parents, teachers, administrators, student counselors, and  teams of district employees like Student Engagement Specialists Family and Community Support Service Providers, and Pupil Personnel Workers. Creative, engaging solutions are necessary to tackle this growing phenomenon. Some creative examples include 10:

In Dayton, Ohio, where 2022 attendance rates fell below 85%, the school district has offered $25 and $40 gift cards to encourage attendance and help offset food costs

Long Beach, Calif., district employees have made home visits to engage absent students and their parents

And, Waco, TX changed policies to allow students to take evening classes to accommodate their work schedules

Collective Impact Solutions

The above examples demonstrate creative, effective district-led solutions and are commendable. However, engaging community-based organizations and promotoras can lead to collective impact that addresses the root causes of chronic absenteeism. Because chronic absenteeism is such a complex issue, school districts should collaborate intentionally with community-based organizations, and promotores, in particular. As trusted cultural workers in their neighborhoods, and often parents within the districts themselves, promotoras can extend the resources and knowledge of districts, resulting in interventions that may be more likely to solve the complex problems that drive chronic absenteeism.

Solutions in Action: El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center, in partnership with Loma Linda University Institute for Community Partnerships and San Bernardino City Unified School District, deployed community health workers/promotores to support the District’s most at risk families for chronic absenteeism. These families contended with barriers like poverty, mental illness, food insecurity, home instability, unemployment/underemployment, and transportation issues. El Sol’s promotores conducted 308 home visits and made 1,396 phone calls to understand root causes and increase family supports. As a result, vaccination compliance improved across the 258 families engaged, school readiness improved, and promotores worked with district staff and parents to develop action plans to improve school attendance.

5% reduction in the district’s chronic absenteeism

28% increase in Tdap vaccinations

Showing up to school regularly is fundamental to academic success, but schools often have little control over the problem, root causes are complex, and solutions are not easy. It is imperative to engage different stakeholders across the community and school district ecosystem, including parents, promotores, community-based organizations and local government, to collaborate in structured ways towards shared outcomes.

Contact [Name and title] at [email address and phone number] to learn more about El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center’s Community Partnerships in Education that combat chronic absenteeism in the Inland Region.

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