As schools in southern Alameda County gear up for a new academic year, educators are facing the possibility of another year where students miss a significant number of school days. During the 2021-2022 school year, the rates of chronic absenteeism at area school districts ranged from 13% to a staggering 55%.
Chronic absenteeism, defined as students missing more than 10% of the school year, including excused absences, has long been a concern for school districts. The emergence of COVID-19 further compounded the issue for many districts. For instance, the rate of chronic absenteeism went from 4.5% in 2019 to 13.1% in 2022 at Fremont Unified School District, according to the latest data from the state Department of Education. Similarly, Newark Unified School District saw rates jump from 6.1% to 15.9%, Hayward Unified School District from 12.3% to 55.4%, and San Lorenzo Unified School District from 11.6% to 46.9%. New Haven Unified School District was the only one to see a decline from 48.6% to 36.2%.
“The educational system is still recovering from a variety of challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fremont Unified’s Superintendent C.J. Cammack said in a statement. “Since 2019, the Fremont Unified School District has seen a rise in chronic absenteeism, though at a lower rate than Alameda County and the State overall.”
The rate of chronic absenteeism across California went from about 10% in 2019 to 30% in 2022. Nationally, Joshua Childs, an assistant professor of organizations and education policy at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed out that the number of chronically absent students has risen from an annual average of 7.5 to 8 million before the pandemic to nearly 10 million since 2020. This shift is disconcerting since chronic absenteeism often correlates with lower academic achievement and lower chances of high school graduation, among other issues.
“We know socially for students who are chronically absent, they tend to feel less connected to the school and the overall school environment or community, less likely to build connections with the adults or educators within the school building, and also least likely to build connections with their peers,” Childs said. ” … And then developmentally, we know that students who are chronically absent tend to fall behind academically from their peers, tend to be behind when it comes to math and reading or language arts testing outcomes.”
Looking ahead, Cammack and John Thompson, superintendent of New Haven Unified, are less concerned about COVID-19 being a primary cause of chronic absenteeism. They anticipate other challenges to play a larger role this year, particularly for students who were already facing challenges, such as homelessness.
Childs identified four primary areas that present obstacles to school attendance: the school environment, including how welcome students feel; the neighborhood environment, including how easy and safe it is to get to school; the degree of family-school connectivity; and the physical, mental and social well-being of students.
“When it comes to physical health, we know that asthma followed by obesity and dental issues are a leading cause for students to miss school,” Childs said. “And so not having adequate access to health care to be able to address some of those physical ailments can lead to students missing school consistently.”
San Lorenzo Unified laid out the most comprehensive approach to dealing with chronic absenteeism. Last year a shortage of bus drivers was a major issue with the district down to a single driver at one point. Scott Faust, the district’s spokesperson, said things have improved since.
“We’re very close to a full staff,” Faust said.
San Lorenzo is actively implementing the kinds of measures recommended by experts like Childs. Faust said the district is opening wellness centers at all school sites, launching a mental health telehealth program, increasing the number of calm corners in classrooms in case students need a moment to step away, and communicating the importance of school attendance to families. Instead of just sending reminders to families facing chronic absenteeism, Faust said the district sent messages of encouragement around attendance to all families, including letters to students customized by grade level with games and puzzles included.
“This is not brand new, but we’ve made an intentional shift in our approach to chronic absenteeism away from a disciplinary approach to more of an intervention and support model,” Faust said.
In addition to the steps taken by districts like San Lorenzo, Childs recommended districts leverage technology to enhance the learning environment, provide professional development, engage with the community around how everyone can collectively better support students, and working better with data to understand trends, like if there are certain times of year when students are more likely to be absent.
Hayward Unified and Newark Unified were unable to respond by deadline.