What is chronic absenteeism, and why parents should be more concerned about it

There has been plenty of reporting over the last several months about the surge in absences among America's schoolchildren since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent national data shows that roughly 26% of public school students were chronically absent from school in 2023 — a substantial increase from 15% prior to the pandemic.

And yet, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll, most parents still aren't concerned about — or even familiar with — the issue of chronic absenteeism, which education experts warn is a significant contributor to increased dropout rates and overall learning loss.

The poll surveyed both parents of school age children and members of the general population about a variety of issues concerning K-12 education. According to a report of the findings, published by NPR Monday, just 5% of parents and the general population cited chronic absenteeism as a major concern. And only about a third of the parents surveyed could properly define the term, according to NPR.

Here’s what experts say parents should know about chronic absenteeism and its potential impact on students’ education.

📚 What is chronic absenteeism?

Chronic absenteeism is defined as a student missing at least 10% of days in a school year, whether the absences are excused or not. The minimum average K-12 school year in the U.S. is 180 days, a number that varies from state to state. This means that it can take as few as two missed school days per month for a student to be considered chronically absent.

🧑‍🎓 How does chronic absenteeism affect students?

Chronic absences can have various effects on students — and a family as a whole. In some states, missing a certain number of days can initiate a truancy case. Truancy court, part of the civil court system, could order the student to community service, pay a fine or even suspend a driver's license.

Parents of truant students may also face similar penalties and could even be found criminally negligent if they don’t require that their children to go to school.

Aside from the legal aspect, consistently missing school — especially in the earlier grades — can cause kids to fall behind on their reading skills. Since 2020, when chronic absenteeism began to rise, math and reading test scores also began to decline.

While this issue affects students in every grade, high school students are most likely to become chronically absent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

🏫 Why aren’t parents more concerned about chronic absenteeism?

According to the NPR/Ipsos poll, the top concern for parents is ensuring that their child is prepared for the future, followed by bullying and gun violence.

"One very prominent explanation here that meets the evidence is that during the pandemic many children and parents simply began to see less value in regular school attendance," Thomas Dee, an education professor at Stanford, told NPR.

🧑‍🧒 What can parents do to help their children?

Mallory Newall, a vice president at Ipsos, suggested that one way to get parents involved in combating chronic absenteeism is by tapping into their concern about preparing their children for the future.

“To prepare students adequately for the future, they need to be in the classroom,” Newall told NPR. “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.”

Understood, a nonprofit that offers resources and expert advice to people with learning differences, offers some tips on how to reduce absenteeism, especially among students who may be missing school on purpose. Their suggestions include talking to the child, getting them evaluated to see if there are other issues involved and collaborating with the school and other organizations to provide support.

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