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A Turning Point for Combating Chronic Absenteeism in American Schools

Before the coronavirus pandemic, chronic absenteeism was a growing epidemic of its own kind that rocked schools across the country. Defined as missing fifteen or more days of a given school year, chronic absenteeism is a systemic issue with serious consequences. Chronic absenteeism in early years can lead to little to no reading abilities by third grade, despite the fact that the average third grader is a proficient reader. Students who cannot read by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers. According to an extensive study done by the organization Attendance Works, nearly 8 million U.S. public school students missed three or more weeks of school in the 2015-2016 school year. 790,000 more students missed enough days of school to be categorized as chronically absent than in the 2013-2014 school year. This issue hits very close to Brown University; one of the states experiencing the highest levels of absenteeism in the country is Rhode Island, whose rate stood at an alarming 21.2% over the 2015-2016 school year. Many schools face patterns of absenteeism: over half of chronically absent students attend schools in which the rate of absenteeism is categorized as high or extreme. This issue also contributes to the widening racial and economic achievement gap that has long plagued the American education system. Nationally, AAPI and Black students were respectively 50% and 40% more likely to be chronically absent than their white peers in the 2015-2016 school year. This evidence points to a failure on the part of schools rather than students or families; yet more often than not, parents and students—especially low income families and families of color— are blamed and punished for chronic absenteeism. While public education is undergoing its greatest test of the century, schools have a decision before them: either curb the issue of absenteeism by improving outreach programs, or continue to implement punitive measures that fail to address the root of the problem.

To date, the U.S. education system has relied heavily on fear tactics to get students into school every day. It is in their best interest that students attend, after all: as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, 36 states and D.C. use absenteeism as their chosen non-academic metric to assess school performance. A case in Michigan received national attention this summer when a 15-year-old Black female student was arrested and imprisoned for not completing her online schoolwork. During her time as district attorney of San Francisco, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris headed a program that threatened parents of chronically absent children with incarceration. Just this spring in New York City, school officials called child welfare officers on parents whose children repeatedly missed online school. This could result in a parent temporarily losing custody of their child. Understanding that chronic absenteeism is deeply linked to poverty, these approaches fall into the ubiquitous and dangerous pattern in American law enforcement of criminalizing poverty.

If the state of absenteeism was dismal pre-pandemic, there are only more factors that could contribute to widening the racial-economic attendance gap in our current situation. While it is too early to have a full understanding of the damaging effects of coronavirus on attendance, we know there are additional barriers to attendance: lack of internet access, health concerns, and rising economic instability, to name a few. While lack of internet access is a systemic problem linked to poverty that is especially prevalent in rural communities, some makeshift solutions have emerged. Wifi buses in South Carolina provide access to rural communities, and in Ohio, school districts have partnered with internet providers to broaden access to low-income families. In Oakland, a public-private partnership provided 25,000 laptops and internet hotspots to students and families. While these steps are vital, they won’t automatically ensure that students log in to virtual school. In a pandemic that is disproportionately hurting students and families of color both economically and in terms of health outcomes, short-term solutions are not enough. A recent McKinsey study suggests that the achievement gap for Black students has expanded from 15 to 20 percent since the beginning of school closures in March. According to the Brookings Institute, “Students of color who are less likely to have broadband will also be disproportionately targeted for ‘virtual truancy,’ and have an increased likelihood to drop out as school systems are pressed to adapt old learning paradigms for the digital age.” 

In John Diamond and Amanda Lewis’ 2015 book Despite the Best Intentions, the authors find in a case study of a highly diverse Midwestern school with a large racial achievement gap that the school administration spent a great deal of time and energy communicating with and meeting the needs of the school’s white families, while Black and Latinx families were ignored. Though this evidence is anecdotal, white parents acting as a barrier to the success of all students seems to be an idea that is gaining more traction recently. The New York Times’ new five-part education series, Nice White Parents, posits that the biggest obstacle to closing the racial achievement gap is the fact that schools and white parents work in a symbiotic relationship, further perpetuating the notion that schools serve white families first. This is one of the main factors that leads to racialized chronic absenteeism and a major obstacle towards its undoing, even pre-covid.

Many schools, especially ones that serve mainly white families, do not reach out to or build relationships with families of color. However, the pandemic might be changing that. Paolo DeMaria, the superintendent of public instruction for Ohio, describes this shift: “I think the long-term goal is to actually be creative and understanding. We’re so used to testing and just taking attendance as kind of anchors of measurement.” For DeMaria, promoting attendance in the pandemic era means “making sure you’ve got communication channels that can reach every family in every state.” The shift from simply keeping track of attendance to actively reaching out to struggling students and families may seem subtle, but it could have life-altering positive consequences. In Long Beach, CA, where chronic absenteeism has been a problem for the district long before the pandemic, the administration has been highly proactive in order to avoid potentially devastating consequences for at-risk students during quarantine. The district opened 26 Family Resource Centers, where “families of enrolled students can receive health-related services from school counselors and psychologists as well as support related to parenting, behavior management, crisis intervention, suicide prevention and attendance issues.” The families of students who miss a significant amount of virtual school days or fall behind on work will be identified and receive an educational intervention that includes outreach, follow-up, problem-solving, and intensive case management for students with extreme cases of absenteeism instead of punishment. Before the pandemic, Proving Ground, a Harvard-founded program, partnered with two school districts to send postcards to 5,062 homes of students as absences occurred. This approach reduced student absences by almost 8% in the 2018-2019 school year. Now, this same group is piloting a new intervention program designed for remote learning that aims to engage families and open up a two-way communication channel to better understand why absences are occurring. City Year Sacramento made around 600 calls to students and families to assess obstacles that might impede a student from participating virtually and were able to translate all communications into other languages. 

 Erin Simon, the director of student support services for the Long Beach district, believes that school officials are realizing now more than ever what building trust with families can accomplish within a school. While it seems to have taken a pandemic for some schools to finally shift their attention and resources to marginalized students and their families, this is nevertheless a sign of hope. For far too long, school districts have accepted as fact that there will be students who just cannot succeed as much as others. However, this data shows that with an issue like chronic absenteeism, it is no coincidence that entire groups of students are more likely to miss fifteen or more days of school. Reaching out to these students was never a priority before the pandemic, often because wealthier, white parents tend to dominate the school’s attention. The importance of these new initiatives to combat absenteeism—opening channels of bi-directional communication and problem-solving with the goal of removing obstacles to participation (emotional or physical)— is that they are actively reapportioning much-needed attention and resources to vulnerable students. The reality is that only a few school districts nationally are putting maximum funding and effort into curbing chronic absenteeism during the coronavirus pandemic. Federal action must be taken to avoid potentially catastrophic educational consequences. If schools see that outreach can get students to log on virtually to learn during a global pandemic, the culture of punishment surrounding absenteeism might just be replaced with a more compassionate approach.

Photo: Image via Unsplash (David Shoykhet)