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Nearly three quarters of U.S. public schools have reported an increase in chronic absenteeism (students missing at least 10 percent of the school year) compared to a typical school year prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, April 25, 2023, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Joshua Childs, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas. He discussed topics including: statistics on chronic absenteeism; the academic, social, and developmental effects on children of missing significant amounts of school; barriers that keep kids from consistently attending school; the research link between school attendance and computer science education; the research link between school attendance and interscholastic athletics; challenges teachers face when students are chronically absent; and research-backed strategies to increase student attendance.
Dr. Childs reports serving on the board of the United Way for Greater Austin, a volunteer position. Dr. Childs’ research is funded by the National Science Foundation, Google.org, Wallace Foundation, and Google Computer Science Education Research.
JOSHUA CHILDS: My name is Joshua Childs. I’m an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where I study the intersection of organizations and education policy, particularly focused on the role of community organizations to influence education, policy, and reform.
Interview with SciLine
What is chronic absenteeism?
JOSHUA CHILDS: Chronic absenteeism is missing 10% or more of the school year for any reason. That includes excused absences, like a doctor’s visit or a class field trip, unexcused absences, such as skipping or being truant from school, and being expelled or suspended from school for behavioral-type reasons. And then the 10% or more—if you think of a regular 180-day school year, which is about average for most schools in the country—that’s missing as few as 18 days. And so a student who was chronically absent has missed a significant amount of school. It does not have to be consecutive days or weeks. It can be over the course of the entire school year. And it has huge outcomes and influences on students’ achievement and academic progress and so forth.
How common is chronic absenteeism?
JOSHUA CHILDS: On average, annually, around 7.5 to 8 million students are chronically absent each year. That’s a significant number of students who are missing school for a variety of reasons. And since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020, latest national data from the U.S. Department of Education has shown that that number has increased from the 7.5 to 8 million students missing to now, since 2020, around 10 million students being identified as chronically absent from school.
How does it affect children to miss significant amounts of school?
JOSHUA CHILDS: When we look at the effects of missing school, we can think about it in three different areas. First academically, we know that students who are chronically absent or miss a significant amount of school are more likely to drop out and are less likely to graduate from high school. We know socially for students who are chronically absent, they tend to feel less connected to the school and the overall school environment or community, less likely to build connections with the adults or educators within the school building, and also least likely to build connections with their peers—to feel part of their class or the overall grade level community. And then developmentally, we know that students who are chronically absent tend to fall behind academically from their peers, tend to be behind when it comes to math and reading or language arts testing outcomes. And then overall, what we know from the effects of chronic absenteeism is that students—and their families as well—tend to see themselves less part of the overall fabric of not only the school environment, but overall education—seeing or asking questions about how education is important to their outcomes or important to the overall well-being for what it looks like for them to achieve.
What are some of the barriers that keep kids from consistently attending school?
JOSHUA CHILDS: There are a significant number of barriers that keep students from consistently attending school that leads to them being chronically absent. So, I tend to think about that or talk about it in four different areas. The first being what we can consider a bucket of the physical, mental and social health of a student. So, when it comes to physical health, we know that asthma followed by obesity and dental issues are a leading cause for students to miss school. And so not having adequate access to health care to be able to address some of those physical ailments can lead to students missing school consistently. Mental health, particularly or specifically since the pandemic, has increased for students and not feeling mentally well can lead to them missing school, not wanting to attend on a frequent basis. And then finally, when we think about the social aspects of social overall health of how they feel either connected or disconnected from the school environment can lead to them being chronically absent.
The second kind of overall area I would call is the neighborhood context. So, are there safe routes, safe transportation, adequate busing options for students to attend school? And attend school not only every day, but on time? And are those routes and transportations consistent? Do they have to change based on things like weather or road closures or other parts of the environment? We can also think about housing and other kinds of city-based or community-based services that having a direct impact or creating barriers for students to attend school consistently. The third area is the overall kind of school environment. So, is the school environment welcoming and engaging for students? Do students enter into this physical—or virtual learning space—feeling connected and welcome and wanting to be a part of the overall community fabric of the school? Is the school environment physically safe—not only in terms of interactions with peers and the adults. But is there significant issues with maybe asbestos or having adequate and reliable desks and textbooks and safe infrastructure within the school building? And if not, that can lead to chronic absenteeism rates increasing. And then finally, connection or the link around the family. Do families feel connected and a part of the school environment? Is there a reliance on and connections built between the school and the family that there’s constant communication about the importance of attending school and being engaged with the overall school community? And finally, thinking when we think about family, the importance of school in that family—and what I mean by that is that do families understand the value of what the school environment can do for their child, and that how consistently showing up can lead to outcomes that are beneficial for their children, their child, overall over time.
What is the link between school attendance and high school sports?
JOSHUA CHILDS: When we think about interventions, when it comes to improving student attendance, one of those types can be through the athletics. In many states coaches have to be full-time employees of the district in which they’re coaching their sport in. And so many times coaches are teachers, whether it’s in science, history, math, reading. And so, they spend a significant—not only hours of the school day—with students, but also before and after school and weekends over the summer, due to the different types of sports that students could be involved in. And so, there’s a role for the coaches to play when it comes to helping to improve attendance. We know that one of the most important aspects when it comes to improving student attendance is a connection that students make with adults—particularly those adults that engage with them on a daily basis. And so, there’s a role for coaches—that oftentimes are also teachers or paraprofessionals, or leaders in schools—to play when it comes to improving attendance.
How are reporters doing covering issues related to kids missing school?
[Posted April 25, 2023 | Download video]