Northeast Tennessee schools struggle with high chronic absence rates

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — For years after the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northeast Tennessee schools are working to fight chronic absenteeism while those rates continue to rise.

According to the Tennessee Department of Education’s recently released report cards, the 12 regional Tennessee school districts in News Channel 11’s coverage area had an average chronic absence of 18.4% in 2023. In 2019, that number was just 13%.

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Chronic absence rates are calculated by determining what percentage of the student population missed at least 10% of instructional days; for most districts, that’s 18 days.

Kingsport has one of the highest absentee rates in the region at 24%, just shy of Unicoi County Schools’ 24.1%.

Education leaders told News Channel 11 that the cause of the trouble is simple: the pandemic changed the way parents and students think about sickness and school attendance.

“Any time a student was symptomatic, they were encouraged to stay home,” Kingsport City Schools Attendance Coordinator Matthew Smith told News Channel 11. “We have seen an increase in the number of students who can’t get back to that sort of normal, who their default is, ‘I’m going to stay at home and stay in bed’ instead of ‘I’ve got to get up and go to school.'”

Smith said he’s focused on shifting the mindset around attendance by launching a district-wide publicity campaign called “All in for Less than 10,” as in fewer than 10 missed school days.

Smith said schools also work to make attendance fun.

“Whether it’s a certificate with Pals Bucks attached, schools do incentives with like a grade level ice cream party or the classroom with the highest attendance gets a dance party,” Smith said.

With school attendance linked to other significant statistics like test scores and dropout rates, Smith said it’s critical to get serious about attendance, even if it means going to school with a cough.

“This is the hard day that was coming,” Smith said. “It is going to take work and relationship building with students and families to start to course-correct and change some of these behaviors.”

Johnson City Schools has managed to keep its chronic absence rates lower at 14% last school year, though the district has still seen a 22% increase since 2019.

Johnson City’s top attendance administrator, Tammy Pearce, said the district has been successful by investing in people. Johnson City Schools has added at least one full-time employee at each school working to connect with chronically absent students.

Pearce said it’s been a success.

“They get to know the families,” Pearce told News Channel 11. “They get to build relationships, and we just feel like working within your own school population, of course, and working with kids you see every day is going to be more beneficial than someone from central office.”

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