By Pamela Fong, Senior Research Associate at WestEd and a regular contributor to blogs about timely issues and the change-oriented work of Regional Educational Laboratory West (REL West) research-practice partnerships for the Institute of Education Sciences. This post first appeared on the REL West blog and is posted here with permission.

Chronic absence was already a pressing problem for schools and districts before the COVID-19 pandemic. More than seven million students, or about one in six students, missed 15 or more days of school in 2017–18, resulting in a 16 percent national chronic absence rate according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

During the pandemic, chronic absence rates spiked when students and families were confronted with new and escalating stressors. The unforeseen switch to online learning along with the physical and mental health challenges, caregiver responsibilities, fear of the virus, and housing instability caused more and different student groups—students who previously were not chronically absent from school—to miss out on learning. This blog discusses the importance of using data to identify the root causes of chronic absences and describes how one school district is seeing improvement by recognizing its shifting needs and responding with multi-tiered interventions.

Schools Have Reopened, But Higher Chronic Absence Rates Linger

When is a student considered chronically absent?

Most states define chronic absence as missing 10 percent or more of the school year or having at least 15 days of absences—whether excused or unexcused. Both types of absences are counted because absent students miss out on learning opportunities in either situation.

Although most students were back to in-person learning this past 2021–22 school year, pandemic-related chronic absence lingered in schools. In a spring 2022 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, 72 percent of public school leaders reported that chronic absence had increased compared to a typical pre-pandemic school year.

If the problem is not remedied, the impact on students can be long lasting. Research about elementary students and about high school students shows that missing too much school and missing out on learning is associated with low levels of academic achievement and poor social-emotional development, which may create greater risk for negative, long-term consequences.

District and school leaders and staff across the country are working hard to boost attendance and lower chronic absence rates. They are examining disaggregated data to identify who is missing school, going door-to-door to the homes of chronically absent students to find out why they are missing school, providing students and families with targeted services and supports, and strengthening relationships with students and families, among other practices to re-engage students in school and show that school staff care. At the same time, schools and districts are looking for fresh approaches and multi-tiered strategies to reduce chronic absence rates.

Chronic Absence Data Are the “Canary In the Coal Mine”

To gain insights about the current chronic absence problem and provide considerations for schools and districts to address the problem, the Regional Educational Laboratory West (REL West) spoke with a national leader, Cecelia Leong, Vice President of Programs at Attendance Works, a national organization that partners with schools, districts, and states to prevent and reduce chronic absence. Leong says that addressing chronic absence requires understanding its root causes.

Attendance Works refers to chronic absence data as the “canary in the coal mine”—a signal that other underlying challenges exist for students in their homes or communities that interfere with daily school attendance. These challenges may occur at the community level, such as unreliable transportation and unsafe walking corridors, or at the student or student group level, such as unstable housing, food insecurity, and student disengagement due to being bullied. Schools may respond with universal, supportive, or intensive tiered interventions such as improved transportation to school, conflict resolution skill-building classes, or other targeted wraparound services that aim to help students attend school.

“Schools and districts vary in how they understand and respond to their chronic absence situation,” says Leong. “There are those that are unaware of the problem or maybe sense the problem but don’t know how big it is because they don’t have or routinely use good data. Then there are those that knew early on that their students were in trouble and have taken action.”

According to Leong, real-time data—or monthly or quarterly data, at minimum—are needed to reduce chronic absence: “It’s not a one-time thing.” Continual monitoring of data can help school and district attendance teams identify existing and new patterns of attendance in individual students or student groups and respond with appropriate support as the root causes for missing school change. Continual monitoring also allows staff to assess whether interventions are working and whether rates of chronic absence are decreasing.

How One District Uses Data to Understand and Respond to the School Community’s Shifting Needs

Leong from Attendance Works suggests that one district turning the curve on chronic absence is Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) in California. Prior to the pandemic, a cohort of 25 schools in LBUSD had already begun addressing the causes of its chronic absence through the district’s “ALL IN” school attendance campaign. Teachers and staff introduced the campaign at back-to-school night, encouraged families and students to pledge to strive for missing no more than five days per student each year, provided strategies and attendance calendars to families for supporting good attendance, and promoted the campaign at schoolwide events throughout the year. LBUSD analyzed school- and district-level data for causes of chronic absences and partnered with city and county government agencies, local health care providers, and other community organizations, among others, to provide multi-tiered interventions.

In the campaign’s second year, LBUSD shared data revealing that chronic absence rates had decreased—including rates for major student groups such as students living in foster care, students with low socioeconomic status, African American students, and Hispanic students. More than 4,000 students had received help from the district’s tiered levels of support.

When school buildings closed during the pandemic, LBUSD recognized that the pandemic was changing the reasons why students were missing school: The district saw more challenges related to mental health, physical health, and student and family disengagement. Responding to the shifting needs, the district formed a cross-departmental team of staff from student services, instruction, early childhood, and data systems to focus on providing whole-child supports and caring for the emotional well-being of students and staff. The team wove together academic and social-emotional supports through community partnerships while focusing on building strong home-to-school connectedness.

The team’s approaches included canvassing communities, conducting home visits (or “porch visits”), establishing relationships with students and with families, following up with parents and with students outside of school, dedicating staff to provide case management, and working with community agencies to provide timely resources and services to students and families.

“LBUSD believes that our home-to-school connectedness tiered interventions allowed us [during the pandemic] to forge deeper relationships with students and families,” says Dr. Erin Simon, LBUSD Assistant Superintendent of School Support Services, “while also keeping the chronic absence lower than in many districts in California.”

New REL West Partnership Focuses on Increasing Student Attendance

With its new portfolio of partnerships, REL West is committed to facilitating learning across districts so that educators can learn from their peers in a variety of content areas. In addition, REL West and its partners will learn from the efforts of others—such as LBUSD’s work on chronic absence—to gain insight into what practices are promising, innovative, and where there is more room for growth.

In one new partnership, REL West and Washoe County School District (WCSD) in Nevada are working together to learn more about ways to lower pandemic chronic absence rates. Building upon districtwide momentum to use data and evidence to tackle absenteeism, to strengthen its multi-tiered student supports, and to partner with students and families, WCSD is working to make a difference. As this partnership’s work progresses, REL West and WCSD staff look forward to sharing what they have learned together.

Helpful Resources

The following selected resources can help schools and districts address chronic absence.

Every Student, Every Day: A Multi-Tiered Approach to Reducing Chronic Absence in Elementary School
A REL West webpage that offers an overview of the causes and consequences of chronic absence through a video about a multi-tiered approach, along with links to videos about how three schools are tackling chronic absence and a compilation of curated resources for use with school or district staff interested in engaging in similar work.

Data visualization can help educators address chronic absence
A REL West infographic that shows how data visualization can help educators address chronic absence.

Addressing Chronic Absence in Salt Lake City
A REL West blog that includes an audio interview (9:43) with Jennifer Newell, attendance specialist in Salt Lake City School District, who describes how the district’s team uses data to understand the reasons for why students miss school and to better support chronically absent students.

Showing Up Matters for R.E.A.L.: A Toolkit for Communicating with Students and Families
An Attendance Works toolkit that helps educators and community partners communicate with students and families the importance of going to school and offers strategies for integrating attention and engagement into daily practices.