When Long Beach, Calif., principals and school social workers walk around their neighborhoods before the start of a new semester, they hear about hurdles that keep students from showing up—issues like traffic patterns that make it difficult to walk to school safely and layoffs at local employers that have upended families’ stability.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve heard new concerns: family illness, evictions, and the constant churn of quarantines and isolation when essential-worker family members have been exposed to the virus on the job.
After two years of disrupted learning, some families operating on tight margins have struggled to rebuild the habits necessary to help their children attend school every day. And some still fear their child will contract COVID-19 in the classroom.
Educators very intentionally canvas the streets around their schools to ask about those concerns, and to determine how they will address them.
“I tell them, ‘Before you start school every year, canvas your communities—speak with business owners, go to the Rite Aid, go to the laundry mat, go to the liquor store,’” said Erin Simon, Long Beach schools’ assistant superintendent of student support services. “You need to understand the issues in the community because they will always have a domino effect in your school site.”
The neighborhood walks are part of Long Beach’s effort to tackle chronic absenteeism, which has become a more pressing matter for schools around the country as the pandemic stretches into a third year.
Student attendance matters on an individual level as educators seek to address lost learning time. It also matters on the schoolwide level as states restart their federally mandated educational accountability systems after the U.S. Department of Education excused them from many requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia incorporate data on chronic absenteeism in the formula they use to determine which schools need additional support.
Long Beach’s rates of chronic absenteeism have climbed from around 12 percent in the years before COVID-19 to as high as 25 percent this year, Simon said. She credits an aggressive strategy that involves school social workers and parent engagement for keeping that number from spiking any higher, as it has in other school systems throughout the country.
“Kids come to school when they feel school is physically and emotionally healthy and safe,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, an organization that advocates for tracking and addressing chronic absenteeism. “This is all built on relationships. The pandemic has really eroded some of the core aspects of that.”
Spiking rates of chronic absenteeism
Before the pandemic, about 1 in 7 students nationwide—8 million—were chronically absent, data collected by the U.S. Department of Education show. While there’s no consistent pandemic-era nationwide numbers, several data points suggest rates of chronic absenteeism have as much as tripled during the national crisis, with even higher rates for vulnerable populations, like students from low-income households, Chang said.
While states and districts use varying definitions of chronic absenteeism, it is commonly defined as the number of students who miss 10 percent or more of school days, even for excused absences related to issues like sickness or quarantine. But states and districts also used varying strategies to track attendance during remote learning, including considering students present with some form of documented participation, like a log-in to an online learning platform.
Nurture family connections. Explore ways to communicate with families who need extra support, including virtual parent nights and online chats. If families are uncomfortable with home visits, consider a “porch visit” outside.
Build a relational network. Researchers say students are more likely to attend school consistently if they have strong relationships with adults and other students. If students have a high level of social or emotional needs, consider peer and community mentoring opportunities to build on the connections they may already have with teachers and other adults.
Dig into data. Analyzing trends in chronic absenteeism data can help educators identify underlying causes and develop strategies to address them.
In a November 2021 survey of parents conducted by consulting firm McKinsey and Company, 22 percent of respondents said their child had missed at least four days of school. If those children miss classes at the same rate for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year, they would miss at least 15 days total, enough to be considered chronically absent. That would be up from 18 percent chronic absenteeism reported on the same survey in the spring of 2021. Before the pandemic, about 8 percent of survey respondents reported their child missed 15 or more school days.
“Schools need to use their data to find who needs support and reach out,” Chang said. “Otherwise, an attendance crisis could turn into an enrollment crisis.”
Data also suggest that the pandemic exacerbated challenges that caused lower-income families to struggle with attendance in previous years. They include access to reliable transportation and child care or even the income to buy clean clothes and school supplies, administrators have told Education Week That may explain more-dramatic spikes in attendance issues in some larger urban systems with higher concentrations of poverty, like Los Angeles, Chang said.
Nearly half of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system, were chronically absent this year, the Los Angeles Times found in a March analysis. That’s more than double pre-pandemic rates. The absenteeism rate hit nearly 57 percent for Black students, 49 percent for Latinos, and 68 percent for students experiencing homelessness, the Times reported.
Strained school resources
The problem is so severe in some districts that Chang has proposed schools add a new category of extreme absenteeism, counting students who’ve missed half or more of school days at any given point in a school year. Leaders can then track improvements between bands of extreme absence, chronic absence, and satisfactory attendance, which is considered missing fewer than 5 percent of school days.
Chang advocates for a multitiered approach. All students can be encouraged to come to school through traditions like greetings at the classroom door and effective interventions to prevent unwelcoming behaviors like bullying. Students with more-severe need may require home visits from a school social worker or a connection to a community organization that can assist with needs like mental health care.
Federal officials have said schools’ efforts to tackle absenteeism must keep pace with the problem. In guidance on school recovery, the U.S. Department of Education encouraged schools to reengage students in a “nonpunitive manner,” that focuses on outreach and support rather than penalties for poor attendance.
Schools have an unprecedented surge of federal aid to assist with recovery efforts, including those meant to tackle absenteeism; the American Rescue Plan provided $122 billion for K-12 schools and $800 million in funding targeted to the needs of homeless children and youth.
But schools say challenges in hiring and retaining teachers, counselors, and school social workers have made it difficult to carry out some recovery plans.
And educational leaders like Simon, from Long Beach, are quick to name the hurdles schools face in re-establishing relationships with students and their families.
“Amid this pandemic, what we’ve seen is declining enrollment, extreme maladaptive behaviors, staff fatigue, and health and safety protocols that have been fluid and everchanging,” she said.
Harnessing the power of relationships
All of that can make it difficult for staff and educators to form relationships with students, which researchers have identified as a key factor in promoting attendance.
Long Beach has focused its attendance efforts on its highest-need schools. About seven years ago, administrators matched the four schools that had the worst attendance problems with social workers, interventionists, and added supports. That number has grown to 25 schools today.
“We figured if we can make change in those schools, we can replicate this and do this work anywhere,” Simon said.
During the pandemic, social workers switched from home visits to porch visits to allow for fresh air. They connected with parents of absent students online and held virtual parent meetings to address concerns about the virus. And they carefully tracked data to identify students “on the cusp” of an attendance problem, Simon said.
At a time of great need, Chang said many schools will have to expand their attendance efforts beyond a targeted approach for the most at-risk students, adding more general supports and interventions that help the whole student body show up consistently.
If teachers feel strained and stretched thin, schools could consider adding peer support programs and lunch time discussion groups for students or recruiting adult volunteers to help mentor students and build more supportive relationships at school, Chang said.
“We have so many kids who need support. We’ve got to stop thinking this is a one-on-one solution,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure everyone feels seen, heard and connected to.”
The role of states
Inclusion of chronic absenteeism in states’ school accountability plans came after years of advocacy work by groups like Attendance Works and smaller state-level organizations. They argue that absenteeism data can help states and districts target resources and identify a range of concerns related to issues like safety, student engagement, and poverty.
Setting a percentage, rather than a fixed number, allows schools to track students’ missed school time throughout the school year, giving a moving indicator that can alert them early if there is a problem, attendance advocates argue.
Following the 2015 passage of ESSA, many states moved to add chronic absenteeism to their accountability systems, answering the law’s mandate to look beyond factors like test scores and graduation rates. The law also requires all states to report rates of chronic absenteeism on school report cards. But in feedback sessions, some state leaders heard from educators and critics who argued that attendance is affected by too many factors beyond a school’s control, like student illness.
The unusual conditions created by the pandemic put that critique under a magnifying glass, but advocates like Chang say the data is needed even more as schools plot a path to recovery.
States should do more to support schools in their efforts, said Krista Kaput, a senior analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization that researchs education policy and equity issues. Without adequate guidance, schools have used inconsistent measures of attendance, she said. While many included student quarantine days in absenteeism data, some schools counted students as present on quarantine days if their parents merely responded to a phone call or email.
States have also had big gaps in the data they have collected and reported over the last three school years, Kaput said. In 2019-20, only nine states reported mandated chronic absenteeism on their school report cards, an analysis by the Data Quality Campaign found. That number rose to 35 on 2020-21 report cards, but many states still lack adequate data on the issue, according to the organization, which advocates for effective use of educational data.
As states seek to assist schools, they should also update their own data systems to ensure the information they present is reliable and comparable across districts, Kaput said. That will help them better target resources and, hopefully, ensure that more students make it to class.
“We need to dig deeper into the why [students are chronically absent] and we need to have accurate data so we can provide adequate resources and supports,” Kaput said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2022 edition of Education Week as Chronic Absenteeism Spiked During COVID. Here’s What Schools Can Do About It