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Chronic Absenteeism Is a Crisis. Do Parents Get It?

A majority of parents and caregivers of students with high rates of school absences are not concerned about their children’s missed school days, new research finds.

The findings by researchers at the University of Southern California come as schools take on the uphill battle of bringing down rates of chronic absenteeism that doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. They suggest schools are facing a shift in attitudes toward absenteeism and need more targeted and effective messaging to help families rebuild strong attendance habits.

“If schools and districts are concerned about children’s absenteeism, they need to reach out to parents clearly, in ways that they understand,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor of education at USC. “And they need to try and get to the bottom of what’s driving absenteeism, which is probably going to differ from kid to kid.”

Polikoff and fellow researchers surveyed parents and caregivers in 2,479 households between December 2023 and February 2024 to ask them about their children’s absences.

Five percent said their child had missed more than 10 days in the first semester of the 2023-24 school year, which meets the most common definition of chronic absenteeism: missing 10 percent or more school days in a year. Fewer than half of those respondents, 47 percent, said they were concerned about their child’s absences.

Eleven percent of respondents said their child had missed six to 10 days in the first semester, putting them at risk of chronic absenteeism, the USC researchers wrote in a March 26 brief for the Brookings Institution. Of those parents and caretakers, 29 percent reported concern about their child’s attendance.

Absenteeism rates remain high

National data on chronic absenteeism suggest respondents to the USC survey underreported—or weren’t aware of—the extent of their children’s school absences, the researchers wrote in a March 26 brief for the Brookings Institution.

National rates of chronic absenteeism doubled during the pandemic, reaching nearly 30 percent during the 2021-22 school year, according to Attendance Works, an organization that advocates for tracking and addressing student attendance. State data shows schools made some progress in bringing those numbers down during the 2022-23 school year, but they remain well above pre-pandemic levels in most places.

Concerns about parents understanding of attendance mirror a “perception gap” identified in previous research that found parents may not be aware of their children’s need for tutoring and academic acceleration following pandemic learning interruptions.

Poor student attendance patterns are affected by a range of systemic issues including poverty, healthcare coverage, and access to reliable transportation.

Education advocates have urged schools to take a multi-pronged approach to the problem that includes effective communication with families—everything from text message “nudges” that update parents on how many school days their child has missed, to districtwide campaigns about how attendance contributes to child well-being, to tailored strategies like home visits.

Previous research suggests the importance of a strong school-family relationship. An October study by the organizations Learning Heroes, an organization that studies parent attitudes about education, and TNTP, an organization that promotes effective teaching, found that schools where parents reported higher levels of trust in pre-pandemic surveys experienced lower levels of absenteeism after COVID-19 interruptions.

The USC survey data illuminates the challenges of crafting effective messages for parents. Respondents with children who were chronically absent or at risk of chronic absenteeism often did not identify a single, dominant reason for their absences.

Schools may benefit from explaining the value of in-person attendance, even if make-up assignments and classroom materials are available online, the researchers said.

Thirty-two percent of overall respondents said they weren’t concerned about absences because “everything their child needs to know is available online,” the survey found. Of respondents whose children missed six or more school days, 33 percent said they believed it was OK for their child to work from home if they preferred.

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