The number of students who’ve gone missing from the classroom has only climbed since the pandemic. These days, 16 million students may be “chronically absent,” according to Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works. That means those students are missing 10 percent of a school year—or more.
Why kids don’t show up to school is a thorny problem, Chang says. But it’s something that states will have to confront if they want to beat back the tide of “learning loss” and inequality catalyzed by the pandemic.
Chang agreed to hop on a call to school EdSurge on some of the complexities of K-12 absenteeism across the country.
The big takeaway? It’s about meaningful relationships. “One of the keys to making sure that kids will show up to school is making sure every child in a district or in a school is connected to a caring adult,” Chang says.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
EdSurge: We read a lot of reports about missing students across the country, especially since the pandemic, but can you help give us a sense of the scope of chronic absence right now?
Hedy Chang: The short response is that I think chronic absence has probably doubled since before the pandemic. If you look at the 2018-19 data, the national data showed it was about 8 million students who were chronically absent. And now, I think it’s probably twice that amount based on the data that I’m seeing… In the data from California, which was released in December, chronic absence went from 12.1 percent to actually around 30 percent of the student population.
How has absenteeism changed?
There are some things that remain similar patterns. You still see, certainly, higher levels of chronic absence among kids who are economically disadvantaged or challenged. There’s a range and a variation [of chronic absence] by ethnicity, and you see higher levels for kids who are affected by or have a disability…
Chronic absence used to be really high in kindergarten, and then it would start to really drop more in second and third [grade], and I am worried that there is a little bit less of a drop [now]. It’s more sustaining high. And I think that’s because you’ve got second graders who have had three years of disrupted learning.
It also used to be that we saw young English language learners tended to show up to school pretty regularly [prior to the pandemic]. In fact, more regularly than their English-speaking peers. And with the pandemic, we’re seeing a much greater rise in chronic absence levels among young English language learners. And I think that’s because there have been real challenges in making sure that families who don’t speak languages other than English can understand what’s going on with school, and it’s a whole variety of things.
The pandemic has really exacerbated existing inequities. So, kids who are economically challenged are more likely than ever to be faced with housing insecurity, lack of transportation, little access to healthcare and real challenges of facing trauma. They experienced more illness, their families experienced more illness during the pandemic, and certainly have been challenged by a lot more death and trauma that’s affected kids and families…
We’re also seeing some chronic absence among more middle-class, non-high-needs kids, especially this past fall… And I think that’s because there are some issues—kids’ concerns about schools, physical health and safety, and emotional health and safety and just a lot of anxiety—that is affecting more kids of all backgrounds, though the biggest challenges tend to be kids who are more economically challenged.
You’re pointing to mental strain as a factor driving middle-class chronic absence. How’s it affecting those who are also experiencing housing insecurity and other fundamental issues?
It just means they have it on top of all those things. The concerns about health, sometimes missing school and having anxiety about coming back, affects all kids. But then on top of that, low-income kids have even these additional challenges.
One of the things I think that’s been really hard is that there are more kids who not only are affected by attendance challenges, but they’ve missed school, so there are challenges of how do you make up for the lost time in the classroom. And last year’s quarantines—which might have been important for health reasons—didn’t always have good mechanisms for keeping kids connected to what was being taught in the classroom, as well as making sure that they can stay connected to their peers…
One of the things that can affect kids of any background is that you miss school, and if you can’t find ways to stay up on the learning, then you don’t want to come to school, because you don’t know what’s going on. And you feel embarrassed. That’s happened much more. Kids with fewer resources are much less likely [to be able to]—and this was true even before the pandemic—make up for lost time in the classroom, and so it affects them even more.
Have—or should—the ways chronic absence is being addressed change?
I think we realize [the importance of providing support] when you see really high levels of chronic absence, like 30-40-50 percent of your kids chronically absent. It means that the positive conditions for learning these things actually have been eroded for lots of kids. And improving attendance requires us to invest in those positive conditions for learning.
There’s a much greater understanding, I think, about the critical importance of relationship-building in schools. One of the keys to making sure that kids will show up to school is making sure every child in a district or in a school is connected to a caring adult, making sure that that’s built into how the classrooms operate, and making sure that the structure of school emphasizes relationship building.
But then I think that this isn’t just because of the pandemic. It’s also because of the adoption of chronic absence as part of accountability metrics, and more districts than ever have data systems that allow you to notice which kids are chronically absent. But then you can not only invest in relationship-building, but you can use your data on a chronic absence to figure out, are there some kids who need extra engagement, extra support, for that relationship building to occur?
Another thing that I think [there is] some promising activity around is a greater recognition that we have to create more supports to address health issues in schools. So more schools are making sure that they actually have a school nurse or investing in telehealth, because there became really clear health issues during a pandemic. Health issues can make kids not show up to school.
So part of going to school is making sure that we support the health and well-being of students, whether that’s making sure that students have access to needed services in screening, whether that’s making sure that chronically absent kids have a service plan, whether that’s making sure that you have a school nurse who can help to assess what are the big health-related barriers going on and address them as part of your improvement plan for a district.
I want to take a step back for a second while I wrap my brain around that. Can you help me spell out some of the consequences of chronic absence over a long period?
Well, certainly we know that when kids are chronically absent they’re less likely to, for example, read well in kindergarten.
Chronic absence can affect kids’ learning, as well as their social-emotional development. And if chronic absence persists, it can affect your ability to read and count well, in [say] third grade. It can affect your middle school achievement, and it actually gets connected to an increase in suspensions or behavioral challenges.
And by high school, chronic absence can be an early warning sign that you’re more likely to drop out.
There’s been a fair bit of reporting about suspensions being used as a punishment for absences. But I don’t have a sense of how common that is across the country. How common is it?
I know in California—I live in California—we passed a law that was about treating alternatives to suspension. [The law] specified that schools need to really find alternatives to suspension for kids who are truant. So I don’t hear about suspensions in California very often.
I know that in Rhode Island—this was like 15 years ago—some superintendent got really horrified when she saw that a lot of the reasons why kids were being suspended was truancy. And so she actually put a stop to that and passed a state law to make it illegal in Rhode Island to suspend kids for truancy.
So there’s been a long debate about positive versus punitive and what works better, and I think people would have been moving some away from taking a punitive approach. But there are certainly some places that might do it…
In any case, I would say that I don’t know. There are some places that do that. I don’t know how common it is. And I think there are some places who thought to reform and avoid the use of suspensions for truancy.
What’s Attendance Works’ view on that?
Our view is that you need to start with positive prevention, and not punitive approaches. And there’s never been any research that would suggest that punitive approaches work. In fact, there is research from South Carolina—this isn’t suspension—but that showed that kids who ended up in the legal system, actually, their attendance got worse compared to kids who didn’t end up in the legal system.
The legal system and legal strategies are both more expensive and generally less effective. A legal strategy is assuming that the problem is the kids missing school because they don’t want to be there and deterrence works.
That may be true for some kids, but the vast majority of kids miss school because they face a barrier. Yeah, the key to solving and improving attendance and solving chronic absence is understanding the barriers and then addressing them.
Do you have a feeling or a sense for whether this issue is being treated as seriously as it deserves across the country?
I think heightened numbers and levels of chronic absences are creating a much greater sense of awareness, and the fact that chronic absences are an accountability metric in 36 states is causing a ton of attention on this.
Now, whether it’s sufficient? I think that solving it is going to require that we work across departments, and we work as a whole community to address it. But I think it is certainly on the radar screen in a way that it hasn’t been before. Whether that’s going to translate into sufficient cross-departmental and cross-agency collaboration, I don’t know.
How should your average educator—who’s interested in doing what they can to alleviate this problem—be engaging with chronic absence?
You need to take a look at data, see where is chronic absence a challenge (who’s most affected?). Second, you need to reach out and figure out what the causes are. What are the things that are getting in the way of kids coming to school?
Is it about barriers in the community? For your kids, what’s going on? Are they facing barriers of housing insecurity or transportation or community violence? Is it that they’re feeling so nervous about showing up to school that the school isn’t offering what they need, that they’re experiencing aversion, or that you are using punitive approaches like suspension or other things that seem unfair, and then the kid doesn’t want to come to school when they can come to school? Is it that school isn’t interesting and they’re not able to forge connections to peers or adults? Or is it that kids don’t really recognize the value of what they’re learning at school?
You need to be able to unpack what’s going on, to figure out what your solutions are… And my last thing is: You need to have a team to do this. You need to have a team that will look at the data with you, will unpack the challenges and the assets with you and make sure that everyone’s working together to put in place a prevention-oriented, tiered support system.
Is there anything else you want to say?
I would just say that a key in all of this is going to be relationship-building. Kids are more likely to come to school when they feel connected to an adult who cares. Kids are more likely to tell you—and [their] families are more likely to tell you—what’s going on if they feel like they’re in a relationship with you.
And so, however [educators] carry out this work, you’ve got to invest in the relationship-building that’s so critical to motivating kids to show up and to actually being able to generate the trust that allows kids and families to share with you what’s really keeping them from getting to school.