Alison Yin for EdSource
Some school districts in California are reporting chronic absenteeism rates of 30% or more.

A month into in-person learning for most California schools, some districts are reporting soaring rates of absenteeism due to stay-at-home quarantines, fear of Covid and general disengagement from school.

Even districts like Elk Grove and Long Beach that had relatively high attendance before Covid have seen big increases in chronic absenteeism — students who have missed more than 10% of school days.

“It’s very concerning. We need to pay close attention to these students,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit aimed at boosting school attendance. “Not only are they missing out on opportunities to connect with their peers, but they’re missing valuable classroom time to help them recover from learning loss from the previous year.”

The California Department of Education has not yet released statewide attendance data for the 2021-22 school year, but some school districts reported their attendance rates to EdSource. Oakland Unified posts its attendance publicly.

Stockton Unified said that so far, 39% of its students have been chronically absent, more than double the rate two years ago. The district’s truancy outreach workers are visiting up to 60 homes a day, offering incentives like prizes and backpacks, to encourage students to come to school.

Oakland Unified reported that almost 33% of students were chronically absent as of mid-September. Among transitional kindergartners to fifth graders, the rate was higher than 37%. Two years ago, only 14% in that age group were chronically absent.

Elk Grove Unified, outside Sacramento, reported that more than 26% of its students have been chronically absent since school started, nearly three times the rate two years ago.

Long Beach Unified hasn’t compiled its chronic absenteeism data yet, but administrators expect it to be high. The attendance rate — the percentage of enrolled students who show up for school every day — has fallen to 91%, down from almost 96% two years ago. That translates to about 4,000 fewer students showing up for school every day.

Schools receive funding based on their average daily attendance, so they have a financial incentive to keep students in class. Drops in attendance this year would affect districts’ funding in the 2022-23 school year.

In the spring, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 86, urging all schools to reopen for in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year, with an option for independent study in some cases. Independent study has been one reason for high levels of absenteeism. Students who are enrolled in long-term independent study still must log on every day and complete their work or the district may mark them absent. Likewise, students who are home for a few days while they’re sick or in quarantine must also complete their schoolwork, or they’ll be marked absent.

Students in quarantine make up the bulk of absences, Chang said, but not all. Some students are missing school because of lingering mental health or behavior challenges, while others are afraid of contracting Covid. Some have gotten out of the habit of daily school attendance or simply don’t want to be there because they feel overwhelmed, she said.

In many rural districts, chronic absenteeism was a problem long before the pandemic. Poverty and geographic isolation make it difficult for some children to get to school regularly, and districts are constantly trying to address the underlying causes.

Thermalito Union Elementary, a 1,500-student mostly low-income rural district in Butte County, in Northern California, reported 46% of its students have been chronically absent this year, up from 8.8% two years ago.

“My heart goes out to these kids. They’ve lost a year of instruction, and now this,” said Lisa Cruikshank, the district’s director of special projects. “What keeps me up at night is all these kids losing out on high-quality instruction, falling behind, falling through the cracks. We’ve been working so hard to keep kids engaged, but it’s tough.”

Three years ago, Thermalito won a grant to boost student attendance. The district hired extra staff at each school to work with families who struggled to get their children to school. School staff visited families at home, called them personally when their students were absent and made a point to greet students individually when they arrived at school.

At one campus, the principal led a “walking school bus” every morning, escorting children from an apartment complex near the school to class. At another school, staff helped a student’s mother find a job, bringing financial stability to the family and making it easier for the student to get to school.

All those efforts paid off: In just two years, chronic absenteeism dropped by half. But this year has seen that progress erased, Cruikshank said.

Due to a high infection rate in the community, students are frequently exposed to someone who’s tested positive for the virus and are required to stay home for up to 10 days. Once at home, many students aren’t finishing their homework packets, so they’re counted as “absent” during that time, Cruikshank said.

“We have so many families who are struggling, just trying to survive, it’s hard for them to keep their kids engaged in school,” Cruikshank said. “But if we hadn’t made connections before the pandemic, I’m sure we’d see even more families checked out.”

In Long Beach Unified, in Los Angeles County, the spike in absenteeism has been due to students in quarantine who don’t complete their schoolwork, as well as students experiencing behavior issues that make them not want to attend school or who are otherwise disengaged from school, said Erin Simon, assistant superintendent.

Prior to the pandemic, the district had worked for years to improve its attendance figures, offering free bus passes, prizes, school supplies, mentoring and other services to encourage students to attend school. Staff sent personal emails, made calls, and visited families, trying to address whatever barriers kept students from getting to class. By 2018-19, the chronic absenteeism rate was down to 15%.

Anticipating problems with student engagement due to the pandemic, the district expanded its social-emotional offerings before campuses reopened in August. High schools opened wellness centers, the district hired more social workers and teachers honed their skills in recognizing and addressing trauma.

It wasn’t enough, Simon said. After more than a year of remote learning, some students continue to suffer mental health challenges, she said. Suicide threats and misbehavior have soared, as well as absenteeism.

“We thought we were prepared, but we were caught by surprise. … It’s just mind-blowing, and it’s scary,” Simon said, noting that the same phenomenon is happening at schools throughout the country. “We’re doing our best to mitigate it, but it’s not easy because our staff is already overwhelmed. … Our main concern right now is for the wellness of our students and staff.”

Chang, at Attendance Works, said that keeping students in school is more important now than ever, especially after they’ve been out for so long. Attendance is linked to academic performance, discipline and other measures of student success, she said, and a student’s attendance during the beginning of the school year is often a harbinger of their attendance throughout the year.

Students are already facing a host of challenges — learning loss, anxiety and depression due to social isolation, general upheaval due to the pandemic, and grief, in some cases — and missing school may only exacerbate their hardships, she said.

“We need to do everything we can to support these kids,” Chang said. “There’s so much at stake.”

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  1. Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

    I teach Special Ed in LAUSD and I only have one student who has not shown up. We are tested weekly, we are masked and most are vaccinated. It’s all good. It works. If other districts (and parents) want to be successful in living with Covid, they have to accept that some sacrifices are required.

  2. Melani 2 months ago2 months ago

    We kept our son home to be safe. The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) need to make an exception and allow students to play sports for their school which they were enrolled prior to independent study which blocks them from play. Sports solve the mental and social piece and provide a stable group for students choosing to be home during this time.

  3. Rindy DeVoll 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you for including a rural district in California! @CARuralEd

  4. Amy H. Larsen 2 months ago2 months ago

    You forgot to mention the students with disabilities and IEPs who automatically do not qualify for the Independent Study Program...or have to waive all special education services to access it. This population of students is also at high-risk levels of all kinds of physical conditions and immunosuppressed systems and refuse to risk their life to be at school in person. Most districts are not offering any instruction to these students claiming they have no obligation … Read More

    You forgot to mention the students with disabilities and IEPs who automatically do not qualify for the Independent Study Program…or have to waive all special education services to access it. This population of students is also at high-risk levels of all kinds of physical conditions and immunosuppressed systems and refuse to risk their life to be at school in person. Most districts are not offering any instruction to these students claiming they have no obligation to educate during this time.
    https://www.disabilityrightsca.org/press-release/complaint-filed-on-behalf-of-students-with-disabilities-for-discrimination-from-new

  5. Laura 2 months ago2 months ago

    The kids hate the testing and the masks and they are just done and want a normal life, which they should be allowed to have. Survival rates are extremely high for kids.

    Replies

    • Dan Plonsey 2 months ago2 months ago

      "Allowed to have a normal life" -- allowed? During a pandemic that's getting worse because people won't get vaccinated or wear their masks? I'll be happy if my students, my family, and I are just "allowed" to survive the pandemic, climate change, fires, etc. Read More

      “Allowed to have a normal life” — allowed? During a pandemic that’s getting worse because people won’t get vaccinated or wear their masks? I’ll be happy if my students, my family, and I are just “allowed” to survive the pandemic, climate change, fires, etc.

  6. Marcia Fritz 2 months ago2 months ago

    If teachers unions hadn’t fiercely resisted returning students to classes or assisted in practical solutions, such as outdoor classes, perhaps students would not feel like no one cares. Teachers’ enthusiasm and engagement and making classes interesting are key to reversing damages. No one else can do their jobs for them. Parents are fed up.

    Replies

    • CA Resident 2 months ago2 months ago

      There is a dire teacher shortage. Perhaps you may be interested in entering the profession?

      Many schools in CA had students in person or hybrid schedules for most of the year last year.

  7. el 2 months ago2 months ago

    We need to make a plan and rethink how this should work. We want kids with sniffles and coughs to stay home. We need them to. We need them to stay home if exposed to covid too. Of course this increases the absentee rate. What we need to do is figure out how we can support those kids to learn and do their course work while they are at home or while they are too sick to … Read More

    We need to make a plan and rethink how this should work.

    We want kids with sniffles and coughs to stay home. We need them to. We need them to stay home if exposed to covid too.

    Of course this increases the absentee rate.

    What we need to do is figure out how we can support those kids to learn and do their course work while they are at home or while they are too sick to do schoolwork.

    This instinct to get them back in the classroom based only on the absentee rate is not a healthy choice. The goal here is learning, not attendance. We should not be so enamored of our proxy (attendance) that we forget what is actually important – healthy kids who know the facts and skills they need to be successful adults.

    Absolutely, some kids are not learning well when they are not in class. Sometimes kids are absent for bad reasons. We need to check on this and make corrections as we can. But, this is not a reason to harass kids home with the flu and a doctor’s note, as attendance specialists have openly admitted to doing in previous EdSource articles. Instead, how can we apply the lessons we learned in distance learning to ensure that kids who are home for the day have the most engaging possible experience? Why can’t we use our new digital skills to ensure they don’t miss essential instruction and to give them access to important content? How can we make it available either at home or at a later time? Can each school have a distance learning specialist that can check in and zoom with kids that are home for the day? If the students are doing well in class and learning all the material, aren’t we successful regardless of the attendance record?

    I realize that paying schools for attendance is a choice to incentivize schools to get the students to school, and I support that. But I also think that paying for attendance only ignores the cost and reality that schools have to operate as if everyone is coming every day, and that not every absence is within the control of a school. Maybe the way to think of this is to assume that every school is going to have 90% attendance and to think of the extra money from better than that as a bonus for getting the kids to school.