Schools battle chronic absenteeism as students struggle to rebound from the pandemic

One of the pandemic’s major lessons: students learn best when in school with a dedicated teacher – at least according to superintendents and district officials. 

But the hard part is getting students to attend class consistently. 

After years of increased absenteeism brought on by the pandemic, some administrators are implementing new strategies to get kids consistently back in school.

It won’t be easy. There are a number of obstacles and deterrents: online learning trends; laws that promote opting out of class time; parents’ indifference; student mental health challenges; and a statewide switch to enrollment-based funding.

But administrators are still vowing to battle for increased seat time as the school year gets underway. Student social, emotional, and academic wellbeing depend on it.

“There’s a high correlation between excellent attendance and excellent student achievement,” Pat Charlton, superintendent of Jerome School District, said. “We learned during Covid that there’s no substitute for going to class and having a teacher in the classroom … It’s really hard to replicate that interaction between teachers and students online as compared to face-to-face.”

100 different reasons for absenteeism

According to Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that aims to reduce chronic absences, the country is “facing an attendance crisis” that is leading to adverse social, emotional, and academic impacts.

“Prior to the pandemic, eight million students were chronically absent (missing 10% or more of the school year),” its website reads. “That number has more than doubled.”

The trend tracks in Idaho, too. 

The Coeur d’Alene School District has seen a rise in absenteeism at all levels, according to spokesperson Scott Maben. Prior to the pandemic, about 7% of students were chronically absent. Last school year, that number jumped to about 11% of students. Maben said they are still looking into why attendance has dropped so much, but said it could be due to “residual apathy after two years of Covid.” 

“We are fairly concerned and alarmed about those numbers,” he said. “We want to reengage with students and families this school year so they understand how important attendance is.”

At the Boise School District, chronic absenteeism increased from 11.4% in the 2018-2019 school year to approximately 15% in the 2021-2022 school year. 

Attendance has dropped by about 5% since the pandemic at Bonneville School District. Jerome School District has seen a similar decrease among its secondary students. 

“That’s fairly substantial,” Charlton said. “That’s quite a few kids who are missing school.”

Districts say that illness and quarantine only partially account for the increased absenteeism. 

“There are 100 different reasons why kids don’t come to school,” Corrie Anderson, an elementary counselor coordinator for Nampa School District, said. 

Students might have anxiety, work obligations, a funeral or appointment, or a test they want to avoid. Some kids feel disconnected and don’t see the value in education, Anderson said. They might have a family history of not placing importance on academics or graduating from high school. 

And parents are more likely to pull students from school for various reasons – including vacation time. 

“Families are more resistant,” Scott Woolstenhulme, the superintendent of Bonneville School District, said. “It doesn’t matter as much to them if their kids are in class … People want more flexibility and time with their family; they don’t want to be as hamstrung by schools.”

Districts are pivoting from punishing absent students to improving relationships/communication

Woolstenhulme said the Bonneville District used to send kids to Saturday school when their absences were excessive. Doing so allowed the district to earn a higher rate of average daily attendance – a number that impacted funding. But the state later disallowed such practices, so the incentive for offering Saturday school was not there and they stopped doing it. 

“There’s been frustration among teachers who feel like we don’t have teeth (behind attendance policies) anymore,” Woolstenhulme said. 

Instead, the district has opted for less-punitive measures like increased communication. 

Bonneville School District launched a new platform last year called SchoolStatus that allows teachers to text parents about absences without their personal numbers appearing. Parents have been more responsive to that than emails or phone calls. 

And the program allows teachers to send out mass texts so it’s not as time-consuming as making personal calls. 

“Over a million texts were sent last  year,” Woolstenhulme said. “That personal communication from teachers to parents makes all the difference. When kids miss school and they feel like it doesn’t matter if they’re there or not, it’s easy to keep that pattern up.”

The Nampa School District is also moving away from punishment-based attendance initiatives. 

“Referrals to the SRO are the last resort,” Anderson said. 

Instead, Nampa provides “wraparound services” for students struggling to show up to school. Those students check in with an adult – whoever they have the best relationships with – in the morning or multiple times a day. 

Dan Hollar, the spokesperson for the Boise School District, agrees that positive staff-student relationships have a huge impact on attendance. Teachers, counselors, social workers, and child psychologists all reach out to students whose desks are too often empty. 

And Jerome Middle School started an attendance campaign featuring the slogan: “Attend today, achieve tomorrow.” It has promoted the saying with bookmarks, stickers, and signs in front of the school. 

“We’re making an effort to increase the feeling of being welcome at school,” Charlton said. 

 

Jerome Middle School has implemented a new attendance campaign — “attend today, achieve tomorrow” — to battle absenteeism. Photo courtesy of Rylie Zucker, the Community Schools Coordinator at JMS.

But positive approaches to quelling absenteeism have their limitations.

“Attendance incentives are kind of tricky in these times,” Courtney Fisher, the spokesperson for Pocatello/Chubbuck School District said. “We want people to take care of themselves and stay home when they need to, but impart the message that attendance is important.”

Legislators are complicating attendance efforts 

Recent laws are undermining school attendance efforts, Woolstenhulme said. 

“(The laws) cut our legs out from under us,” Woolstenhulme said of the self-directed learner and extended learning opportunity laws. “I haven’t had parents take advantage of them yet but when the opportunity is there, it’s hard for me to say ‘you have to be in school’ when the law allows them to not be there.”

The extended learning opportunities law requires districts to have a policy allowing students to earn credits by demonstrating mastery even if they don’t attend class. And the independent learner law allows students to earn credits for outside-of-class learning, like internships or apprenticeships. 

Woolstenhulme said there’s some viability to that model, but it wouldn’t make sense for some classes and he’s worried the law will be abused by students or parents to avoid attending school. 

“We’re fighting a bit of an uphill battle,” Woolstenhulme said. “We need to decide if we care that (learning) is in-person or not. It’s a fractured system.”

But Sen. Steven Thayn, the legislator who sponsored the bills, said “learning is a function of student interest, not attendance.”

Thayn, R-Emmett, lost his bid for the District 14 Senate seat to Scott Grow, R-Eagle, and will be teaching science at Emmett Middle School this year. 

He said only those students who earn good grades and are self-motivated are eligible to take advantage of the self-directed learner law. Plus, the bills will enable districts like Wilder to have the needed flexibility to focus on learning over attendance. 

Not all districts are focused on attendance

The Wilder School District has been piloting a unique school model since 2016-2017 that encourages students to self-regulate and make their own choices as learners. They arrive at school when they want (although those who ride buses have a limited ability to do so) and go from class to class when and how they want. There are no bells, no tardies, and lax attendance policies. 

“If they aren’t here, we’re not in their grill about being here,” Jeff Dillon, superintendent of the Wilder School District, said. 

Dillon said the unique learning approach has been successful, and pointed to its high graduation rates and 2022 senior class GPA average of 3.4.

But the district had a small class of 34 seniors and they were only allowed to earn As and Bs – otherwise their grade is incomplete and they don’t receive credit. 

“No student is allowed to fail in the district,” he said.

Wilder has shown mixed results on standardized tests. Its average composite SAT score was 808 in 2022, which was well below the state average of 962. And Wilder’s spring 2022 IRI rates show that 39.2% of its students earned a proficient composite score (compared to 68.2% statewide). 

But Wilder students scored above the state average on the 2021 ISAT — about 27% of students achieved proficiency on the 2021 math ISAT (compared to 21.9% statewide) and 34% earned proficiency on the 2021 English Language Arts ISAT (compared to 32.5% statewide).

Funding is another challenge

While superintendents say that attendance is essential to student achievement, many are also looking to the Legislature to make enrollment-based funding permanent. But doing so would also remove the financial incentive that drives some attendance efforts.

Traditionally, school funding has been tied to average daily attendance. However, the State Board of Education has temporarily switched that to enrollment. This is the third year that temporary rule has been in place. 

That’s been a lifesaver for schools as they’ve worked to accommodate the extended absences students have needed in order to quarantine during the height of the pandemic. 

Administrators are hoping enrollment-based funding will become permanent, a move one superintendent characterized as non-negotiable at a conference last month. 

At the very least, district leaders want to know what the future will hold on a permanent basis.

“Not knowing what (the Legislature) will do has made it difficult to set budgets and negotiate with teachers,” Kathleen Tuck, the spokesperson for Nampa School District said. “It’s thrown a wrench for everybody in budgeting.”

On Wednesday, the State Board will consider approving proposed legislation that would make enrollment-based funding permanent if the Legislature approves it. 

Online learning isn’t as prevalent but is here to stay

A trend toward online learning is also pulling students away from the classroom — but online enrollment numbers that peaked during the height of the pandemic are declining. That’s okay with most administrators, who say students generally learn best when in person. 

When the pandemic shuttered schools in March 2020, teachers were suddenly asked to become online instructors and redesign lesson plans made for in-person learning – and most were doing it on the fly and with little training. 

Idaho Digital Learning Alliance, an online state school, was in a unique position. It had been offering online classes for years and expanded its services during the pandemic by starting a K-5 program. In 2020, its enrollment numbers skyrocketed from 35,000 the year before to more than 61,000. 

But this year, IDLA expects an enrollment of about 45,000 – a number on track with its pre-pandemic growth rate of about 8 percent a year – but significantly lower than its peak enrollment. 

Traditional school districts also adapted to the pandemic by adding or expanding online offerings and similarly report that surges in online enrollment have dropped. 

The Boise School District, for example, started providing an online school for elementary and secondary students in the fall of 2020. In April 2021, 3,411 students were enrolled in its online school. By April 2022, that number had dropped to 531. But the district still plans to offer its online alternative. 

“We know that in-person learning provides a first-rate education, but we also understand that that’s not the preference of all,” Hollar, the district’s spokesperson, said. “That’s why we offer both.”

The Nampa School District also started an online school for its students in the fall of 2020. Tuck said the school was “really big” at first. It still has an enrollment of 253, but the vast majority of the district’s students – who number about 14,000 – have opted to return to in-person learning. 

Bonneville School District has had an online school for over a decade. It was established in part to support the learning of homeschooled students. But those students have the option to go in person to the Bonneville Online School, where teachers can help them. 

“The first year after the shutdown, there was a surge in those schools, particularly at the elementary level,” Woolstenhulme said. “Gradually those students went back.”

Currently, he said enrollment numbers are only slightly higher than they were pre-pandemic – by just about 50 students. 

But even though Bonneville does provide online options for learners, Woolstenhulme said traditional learning is best for kids. 

“Technology can’t replace the human relationships between a student and teacher,” he said. “Kids being in a school setting where they can develop positive relationships with adults in the building is irreplaceable … Relationships help motivate students and build their confidence.”

 

Carly Flandro

About Carly Flandro

Reporter Carly Flandro works in EdNews’ East Idaho bureau. A former high school English teacher, she writes about teaching, learning, diversity, and equity. You can follow Flandro on Twitter @idahoedcarly and send her news tips at [email protected]

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