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With 'chronic absenteeism' soaring in schools, most parents aren’t sure what it is

Students continue to miss large amounts of school, but parents aren't concerned.
Yunyi Dai for NPR
Students continue to miss large amounts of school, but parents aren't concerned.

As the school year comes to a close, one problem is plaguing educators across the country: chronic absenteeism. In 2023, roughly 1 student out of 4 was chronically absent across the school year. The problem is aligned with historic drops in reading and math scores nationwide.

School districts have launched campaigns with text messages and home visits in efforts to get students back in class. Educators have long been aware that missing 15, 20 days a year or more creates serious learning setbacks and puts students at a greater risk of dropping out.

But parents – according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll – don’t yet see the urgency.

Only about a third of parents, our poll found, are able to properly define chronic absenteeism. Can you?

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Experts aren’t surprised: “In general, the public doesn't understand what it is and why it matters,” says Cecelia Leong, a vice president at Attendance Works, an advocacy group that seeks to reduce chronic absenteeism. “Parents aren't used to hearing about it.”

The issue really rose to the forefront during the pandemic, and since 2020 the number of chronically absent students has ballooned: “We went from 8 million students to over 14.6 million chronically absent,” Leong says.

She notes that absenteeism can creep up on parents: A student only has to miss two days of school a month to end up chronically absent, so parents often don’t see it happening.

Parents are slow to grasp the urgency

Even when parents see absenteeism as a problem, they don’t always see it as their problem: According to the NPR/Ipsos poll, only 6% of parents surveyed identified their child as chronically absent – but the numbers nationwide show a disconnect.

“Prior to the pandemic … about 15% of students would meet the definition of chronic absenteeism. And that rate grew to nearly 30% in the 21/22 school year,” says Thomas Dee, an education professor at Stanford University.

“One very prominent explanation here that meets the evidence,” Dee says, “is that during the pandemic many children and parents simply began to see less value in regular school attendance.”

Scholars call it “norm erosion": It essentially means students and parents fell out of the habit of school.

How sick is too sick for school?

Maritza Hernandez lives in Phoenix with her three children. Two are still in school – one is 7 and the other is 18. Her youngest struggles with bad allergies during parts of the year and, before the pandemic, that didn’t necessarily mean a sick day from school: “He could still go to school again with some Tylenol,” she recalls. “He's good.”

But, after the pandemic, Hernandez adds, “I can't send him to school because you might get somebody else sick. I don't know if this is just allergies, or it might be worse.”

She's a single mom, and says that, with all the challenges of getting her children fed and off to school, and herself to work, there are many days when her kids are late. "I'm guilty, she says. "I'm one of those parents."

Sometimes, she adds, when they're too late, her kids are marked "absent."

Hernandez calls the school or takes the time to go check them in at the office. But she says she’s normally waiting in a long line of parents to get a late pass – often making the kids even more tardy.

Nicole Wyglendowski says she gets it. She’s an elementary school teacher in Philadelphia.

“What I'm not going to do here today is parent-blame,” she says. “They have a lot of other issues that they're facing.”

She thinks keeping kids home when they’re sick is the right thing, and it’s not anyone’s fault. Her students “are missing school because we live in an area with bad air quality, right? So their asthma acts up and they're not sure if it's their asthma or if it's their allergies or if it's Covid.”

She says that many factors: housing insecurity, transportation issues, having little siblings who need to stay home and receive care, can result in more students staying home.

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The poll asked parents about all kinds of issues facing K-12 education. Only 5% of parents and the general population saw it as a top worry. Their highest priority? Preparing students for the future.

Mallory Newall, a vice president at Ipsos, sees potential there: “To prepare students adequately for the future, they need to be in the classroom. I think that could be a really effective and important linkage for parents that maybe parents in the public just aren't making quite yet.”

Experts say outreach and identifying the reasons keeping students out of the classroom is the best chance districts have of getting their students back.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.