Three years after the pandemic sent most Kansas kids home to learn, schools have a vexing new challenge: getting them to come back to class.
Missing school has become a crisis statewide. More than one in four Kansas students were chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year, which means they missed at least 10% of instruction time. That figure nearly doubled over the previous two years.
State education leaders are still compiling data from last school year, but they expect the problem is getting worse.
“Definitely a dramatic uptick … which is not what anybody would want to see,” said Robyn Kelso, who monitors attendance for the Kansas Department of Education. “At the same time, I don’t know that I’m necessarily surprised.”
Many older students struggled with the transition to remote learning and then back to a normal school routine. Some saw their mental health suffer and lost the motivation to attend class.
With younger students, families are more likely to keep them home with minor cold or allergy symptoms, so the once rare sick day is becoming more commonplace.
“If our kids have the sniffles or a cough, there still is this idea out there of worry that it might spread,” said Laura Drouard, principal of Riverside Elementary School in Wichita. “We have a nurse who can check for temperatures and other concerns. So we hope the message is: If you’re not sick, be at school and create those consistent routines.”
Unlike truancy, which relates to unexcused absences, chronic absenteeism includes parent-excused absences such as those for sickness, medical appointments, family commitments and vacations.
But missing even occasional days can have a profound effect: A student who misses two days a month beginning in kindergarten will have missed the equivalent of an entire year of school by 12th grade.
“That’s a significant amount of time to … try and catch up,” Kelso said.
Research shows that kids who miss a lot of school in the early grades are more likely to not read on grade level by third grade. That increases their chances of falling behind in middle school and dropping out of high school.
Children living in poverty, students of color and those with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent.
The Wichita school district recently hired EveryDay Labs, a California software and consulting company, to help crack down on absences at 13 schools. The company analyzes attendance data and alerts families with letters, emails and text messages — EveryDay Labs calls them “nudges” — when their child misses too much school.
The company compares a student’s attendance to his or her classmates’ at that particular school. It’s a concept gleaned from home energy reports that compare your energy usage to the folks down the street — a dose of peer pressure intended to change behavior.
“Parents have a lot of misconceptions about attendance,” said Emily Bailard, CEO of EveryDay Labs. “Most parents really don’t keep track of the number of days our children have missed school, and when asked to estimate, get it wrong by 2x.”
Parents also tend to downplay the effect of missed school time in the early grades, figuring a day here or there doesn’t matter for a kindergartner. But the consequences add up.
“I might notice that my fourth-grader is struggling in school … but I’m really unlikely to connect that to the fact that my child has also missed school a couple days a month,” Bailard said.
According to the Wichita school district’s absence calculator, a student who has missed two days this school year already is chronically absent.
Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson has called on schools statewide to make attendance a priority, encouraging them to reach out to families about why students are missing class, and to consider offering incentives for attendance.
No matter how great a teacher or curriculum might be, Watson said, schools can’t teach students who don’t show up.
“(If) you’re chronically absent, you’re missing critical instruction,” he said.
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
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