Too many kids are chronically absent. How can schools bring them back?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

Photo Illustration: Yahoo News Visuals; photos: Getty Images
Photo Illustration: Yahoo News Visuals; photos: Getty Images

What’s happening

Schools across the country are finding that one of the most challenging hurdles to helping students recover from the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic is getting them to come to the classroom at all.

Chronic absenteeism, which was a problem long before COVID-19, has become a crisis in the eyes of many experts. Up to 16 million children — a third of the total U.S. public school population — missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 academic year, according to an estimate by the nonprofit group Attendance Works. That’s double the number of chronically absent students during the 2018-19 school year.

Absenteeism is up nationwide but has been particularly acute in some of the country’s biggest cities, including some where more than half of students missed significant chunks of the last school year.

Research shows that kids who are chronically absent are much more likely to struggle academically and drop out of high school. Absenteeism has also been linked to a host of negative outcomes outside of school, including teen pregnancy, drug use and delinquency.

Why there’s debate

School districts across the country have used a host of strategies to try to reduce chronic absenteeism. Though their approaches vary, there’s wide agreement that punishing students — and even their parents in some cases — is not the solution.

Instead, experts say, schools need to understand why kids aren’t coming in, rather than assuming they are simply blowing off class. At times, the barriers are practical. Some districts have made notable improvements by expanding school bus routes, providing access to laundry and providing more free meals.

In other cases, children are skipping school because of mental health issues or because they feel disengaged after having their education derailed by the pandemic. Experts say these problems require a direct one-on-one approach to help show students that they are valued and have advocates at their schools.

Others say the problem can only be truly fixed by treating the underlying issues that push children away from public education, which means giving schools more money and reforming how many of them are run, while also addressing the poverty that makes it hard for so many kids to maintain stability in their lives outside the classroom.


Educators need to talk to families directly to ask what they need

“School officials should meet parents where they are and ask, ‘What does your family need to get your kids in school?’ Sometimes, all it takes is a family feeling welcome in the school.” — Kate Jones, Deseret News

Punitive responses are destined to fail

“There are many reasons why students miss school. … Punishing attendance problems fails to address the issues students face, from family responsibilities to barriers related to racism or inadequate support for disabilities.” — Jess Whitley and Beth Saggers, the Conversation

Small changes can make schools a much more inviting place to be

“There’s another trick to keeping kids in school: making school a place kids want to be. Certainly, this isn’t easy. … There are, however, proven ways to draw kids in: Make classes culturally relevant to all backgrounds; ensure every schedule has a period devoted to something, such as sports or crafting, that kids do consider more fun than playing hooky; offer free breakfast in areas with high levels of food insecurity; offer free laundry services at low-income schools where children worry about coming to class in dirty clothes.” — Editorial, Washington Post

Schools and parents have to work together to reestablish the pattern of school attendance

“During the pandemic, though, every student in America lost the unquestioned habit of school attendance. When faced with the decision to reinstitute this routine, more and more students are hearing their alarms go off and consciously deciding that it’s just not worth it. … The policy prescriptions are frustratingly unclear, and they include years of regaining trust in America’s educational institutions.” — Daniel Buck, National Review

Communities, not just the schools, need to make getting kids to school a priority

“Chronic absenteeism is a village-level problem that will take a collective approach to solve. If we all work together to call students back to the classroom.” — Carla M. McCullough, Hechinger Report

Far more resources must be put toward supporting students emotionally

“If students feel disengaged from their new school, that can definitely lead to more absenteeism. The emotional issues brought on by the pandemic, especially for these vulnerable groups, have been huge … These students need more support than most schools can offer them.” — Naomi Ondrasek, a researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, to the 74

More money is essential, but it needs to be spent wisely

“Money alone isn’t going to solve it. It requires thinking about how schools use data, and insights into tailored approaches. One of the challenges we’ve heard is finding staff – money can help you but only if you can find skilled staff to fill the positions.” — Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, to Philadelphia Inquirer

Absenteeism is a symptom that can be solved only by fixing schools themselves

“Chronic absenteeism can serve as a barometer of a healthy school environment because everyone from classroom teachers to custodians plays a role in helping students build strong attendance habits.” — Evie Blad, Education Week

Kids can’t make it to school if they have too much instability in their lives

“Absences often result from painful but rational choices between a family’s basic well-being and attending school. Problems with housing, health, work, or transportation can quickly spiral into a crisis for a family that lacks money or a social support system. Even if attendance is a top priority, it does not trump the need for shelter, food, safety, and reliable child care.” — Koby Levin and Ethan Bakuli, Chalkbeat Detroit