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Chronic Absenteeism Has Exploded. What Can Schools Do? (Opinion)

Post-pandemic, chronic absenteeism has become a pressing issue for schools. In Arkansas, 46 percent of students missed at least 10 percent of the academic year last year. In Oregon, 36 percent did. In Colorado, it was 35 percent. Things are even worse in low-achieving school districts like Detroit, where over three-quarters of students missed at least 10 percent of the school year in 2022. What’s going on? How concerned should we be? And what can schools do about it? For answers, I reached out to an old friend. Tim Daly is CEO of EdNavigator, an organization that helps families with issues like enrollment, special education, and absenteeism. Tim wrote a sharp threepart series on chronic absenteeism last fall. As we approach the spring, it seemed a good time to get his take on where we are and what educators can do. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: Tim, first off, would you say a word about what EdNavigator is and what you do?

Tim: We’re a nonprofit organization that helps low-income families navigate particularly important moments along their child’s educational journey. We do it by connecting them with knowledgeable ex-teachers who we call “navigators”. What makes us unique is that we connect with families through health care. Pediatricians refer families to us when they identify an issue during an office visit that might benefit from a navigator’s expertise. We work specifically with hospital systems and pediatric clinics that serve publicly insured patients, which ensures that our support goes where it is most needed. For families, it’s completely free. Our health-care partners cover about half the costs because it reduces the burden on their providers and enhances their quality of care; philanthropic funding covers the rest. It amounts to about $1,000 per referral. The navigator sticks with the family until there is a positive resolution, which usually takes two to six months.

Rick: All right, so what sorts of things do your navigators do in practice?

Tim: Navigators help parents manage paperwork and deadlines, prepare for important meetings, and communicate effectively with educators. One might think these are supports a school could provide, but teachers and administrators really aren’t well positioned to represent parental interests while they are also representing the school or district. Parents need someone who is squarely in their corner. The most common issues navigators address relate to school enrollment, special education evaluations and services, and academic support.

Rick: You mentioned that you’re partnering with the medical community in your work. Why are you doing that?

Tim: Our goal has always been to find scalable ways to support families in a meaningful, personalized way rather than just sharing basic information or generalized advice. It turns out that pediatricians are incredibly positioned to achieve that mission. Families trust them. Pediatricians see a child 10 times by their third birthday. We realized that if we empowered pediatricians to extend their reach by offering assistance in navigating education, families would be very likely to take advantage. We help them work through red tape to get their children registered for pre-K, for instance, or request an initial evaluation for special education.

Rick: Your work has given you a front-row view of what’s been going on with chronic absenteeism. First off, how bad is it, really? And what do we know about where it’s happening?

Tim: Absenteeism is just one of many issues we focus on at EdNavigator, but it’s one I’m personally interested in—and it’s off the charts. In the 2021–22 school year, which was probably the peak, about 25 percent of all American students were chronically absent. Before the pandemic, it was 15 percent. As with many education statistics, the numbers are far worse in low-income communities. Los Angeles, for example, had 45 percent of its students qualify as chronically absent in 2021–22. In Detroit, it was 77 percent. There have been surprising increases in some affluent communities, too. New Trier Township High School, near Chicago, serves one of the wealthiest student populations in the country. Last winter, it disclosed that 40 percent of its seniors were chronically absent.

Rick: What do we know about what’s driving this?

Tim: Right now, the biggest driver of absenteeism is a change in the culture of attendance. Post-pandemic, missing school is not such a big deal. Parents are more willing to allow their kids to stay home. Some students—particularly those in middle and high school—feel like they can get all their work done remotely. For a few years, schools didn’t help matters because they sent the message that kids should stay home even with very minor health symptoms and other issues. Grading policies became more lenient, which allowed students to earn the same grades with less effort and more absences. There’s evidence from multiple sources that this exacerbated absenteeism. And on top of it all, incidences of genuine mental health distress and depression are up. It’s complex and it’s a major problem.

Rick: What are you seeing that can help address these high levels of absenteeism?

Tim: The key to addressing this issue is rebuilding the relationship between families and schools. So much was lost in the past four years. That relationship depends partly on families having confidence that schools will deliver for them. Having a navigator, as one example, leads to positive results that increase family confidence. They’re more engaged and invested.

Rick: How big a problem is absenteeism, really? After all, I think we’ve all heard from parents who say, “We were told being in a school building isn’t that important; technology means my kid can keep up even if she’s home.” Is chronic absenteeism still a big deal in 2024?

Tim: There’s probably a subset of self-motivated and independent high school students for whom absenteeism isn’t very costly. But the largest increases have occurred in kindergarten and 1st grade. When young children miss school, they are far less likely to become fluent readers and more likely to develop behavioral problems. Then there’s the problem of learning loss. Districts and states are frustrated that despite a huge infusion of federal money, students have been slow to regain the ground they lost during the first 12–18 months of the pandemic. Attendance is one of the biggest drivers. Schools with larger jumps in absenteeism have also seen more significant declines in proficiency.

Rick: If the culture around school attendance has changed, what will it take to change it back?

Tim: The first step is to stop enabling absenteeism. Some schools changed policies to adapt to the very real challenges of the pandemic. Now, they probably need to change them back. One example would be allowing students unlimited time to make up work that they missed while absent. Another would be setting no limit on the number of times a student can be absent and still receive credit for a high school course. Those policies made it very easy for students to get passing grades while missing tons of school. A second step, which I’m seeing more schools take, is to be clear and direct with parents about when kids should be kept home for health reasons. We erred on the side of caution during the height of COVID. Parents were scolded by school nurses for sending their child if they had even a hint of a runny nose in the middle of winter. Schools are now resetting culture by telling parents to send their kids unless they have more significant symptoms or a fever of at least 100.

Rick: Is there any evidence that the navigator model works?

Tim: The strongest evidence comes from families. When we survey them, about 94 percent of families say that our support helped them resolve their issue. Even more important, 96 percent report feeling more confident in supporting their child’s education going forward. Our navigators do a lot of modeling. Once parents see what they can achieve with the help of a professional, they realize they don’t need to settle for less going forward. We help families get things done faster, too. A common case we get is a parent whose child receives early intervention support at home up to the age of 3, due to developmental delays. It can take those parents up to a year, when the kid turns 3, to get registered with their local district, get their child evaluated for special education, and start formal services. It’s a really complicated process. Our navigators complete those steps with families in three to four months, which means that a child is going to get about eight additional months of services that otherwise wouldn’t have been delivered.

Rick: What have you learned in the course of this work?

Tim: The first and most painful lesson is that the experience of a low-income parent with our public schools can be abysmal. There’s so much waiting, so many delays, so much paperwork lost, so much rudeness, so much disappointment. It’s the sort of stuff no privileged parent would tolerate. Nobody should have to tolerate it. Second, some of our federal guardrails are absolutely essential. Special education law is a good example. Without clear timelines for completing evaluations and mandates around service delivery, families would have a hard time holding districts accountable for doing the right thing. Student records are another one. Federal law says parents can have access to all the information a district maintains, from grades and test scores to discipline. I can’t tell you how many schools try to withhold information. It’s the law that compels them to share it with families. It is not always popular to speak up for federal regulations, but I’m telling you, they are indispensable.

Rick: All right, last question: Based on your experience doing this, is there one crucial tip you can share with parents or educators?

Tim: I advise parents to think of themselves as the driver, not the passenger, when it comes to their child’s education. Don’t hand everything over to your school and hope for the best. If you become a passenger, you won’t have much say over where your child will end up. There will be times when you need to ask questions or refuse to take no for an answer. When you hear that everything’s OK and that any problems will probably resolve themselves in time, but you can sense that’s not right, those are the times when you need to trust yourself. No one else, no matter how well-intentioned, has the same stake in your child as you do.

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