Why Addressing Chronic Absence Matters for Recovery

We have a national crisis: Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 8 million (1 out of 7) students in the United States were at risk academically each year because they are chronically absent—missing 10% or more of school days due to absence for any reason—excused and unexcused absences as well as suspensions. Today the number is much, much higher. We estimate it doubled—increasing from 1 out of 6 students in the 2018–19 school year to nearly 1 out of 3 students by the end of the 2021–22 school year.

Chronic absence is a leading indicator and cause of educational inequity. Like the warning light on a car dashboard, chronic absence alerts schools to pay attention to individual students whose absences add up. Starting as early as kindergarten and prekindergarten, chronic absence can affect student outcomes. Research shows that chronically absent students are less likely to read on grade level by third grade, more likely to score lower on standardized tests and get suspended in middle school. By ninth grade, chronic absenteeism is a better indicator of dropping out of high school than eighth-grade test scores.

Institutional biases and lack of adequate and equitable investments contribute to the disproportionately high levels of chronic absence among students of color, students with disabilities and those who live in low-income communities. When chronic absence affects large numbers of students or disproportionately affects certain groups of students, it is typically a sign of systemic failures that make it challenging for students to attend. These include unreliable transportation, lack of access to healthcare and housing displacement. Practices that push students out of school settings, such as punitive disciplinary policies, and a lack of teachers or curriculum that reflect cultures and ethnicities of the student population are also barriers to attending and engaging in school. In school districts where state funding is determined by average daily attendance, chronic absence costs schools millions of dollars each year.

But it’s often overlooked: Chronic absenteeism data is easily masked by average daily attendance and truancy data, which have been collected for a much longer time. Chronic absence reveals how many and which students have missed too much school for any reason, while truancy counts only unexcused absences. Average daily attendance reveals how many kids typically show up to school each day but doesn’t show how many students are missing too many days.

We know what to do: We must take an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensuring students and families feel connected to school and receive the support they need to attend and learn. Schools, families, students and communities can work together to overcome barriers to attendance while building an engaging school environment that motivates daily attendance. They can monitor data to find out which students are struggling with attendance. Listening to students and families about their experiences and what solutions would be most helpful ensures that schools and districts offer the appropriate support.

Offering access to resources, such as health services, food, clothes, housing supports and expanded learning, can help students and families stay healthy and overcome attendance challenges. Reminding students of the connection between attendance, learning and achieving their hopes and dreams helps all of us remember why going to school every day is so important, even when it isn’t easy. With the help of federal Covid relief funds, states and districts are investing in a variety of solutions to chronic absence, including better data systems, professional development, family engagement, increased access to health services and community schools. See our blog post, New Guidance on Investing Federal Relief Funds to Address Absenteeism.

We can also advocate for investments to address barriers to being in school. Starting with prevention is more effective and less costly than punitive efforts involving fines and court appearances. Legal action should always be the last resort.

We know what to say: Even before the pandemic, research found that families had high hopes for their children yet did not always realize that showing up nearly every day to school was crucial to academic achievement. To re-engage students and families after two-plus years of interrupted learning, educators and community partners need to adjust how they explain the importance of attendance.

This means taking into account the needs of the whole child as well as the experiences of the pandemic. It involves explaining that daily attendance matters, not only for academic success but because school offers an opportunity to develop social and emotional skills such as listening, paying attention, problem-solving and self-regulation, all which are needed to grow and learn. School staff and community partners can use the Attendance Works R.E.A.L. framework to clarify the value of school and tackle misperceptions caused from students’ spending so much time at home during the pandemic.

The time is right: While it is important to send a message all year that attendance matters, the start of school is an important time to strengthen and forge relationships—to rebuild or make new routines and rituals to create a community at school.

The start of school is also when schools and communities lay out expectations for the coming year and begin to develop a culture of attendance. Parent handouts, schoolwide posters, rallies and assemblies provide perfect opportunities to share this message with students, families and staff. School officials are often interviewed by the media at this time, another chance to reach the entire community. The start of school is also the right time to begin paying attention to attendance trends in local data. Educators can review attendance data from the prior year—or absences during the first month of school—to identify who might struggle with attendance.