How to fix chronic absenteeism in America's schools

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(AJ Watt via Getty)
(AJ Watt via Getty)

About a third of students are on track to miss at least 10% of school days this year.

Why are students missing school, and how can we bring them back?

Today, On Point: How to fix chronic absenteeism in America's schools.


Scott Hale, principal of Johnstown High School.

Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works.

Also Featured

Todd Rogers, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Co-founder of Everyday Labs.

Aaris Johnson, director of home visits and re-engagement at Concentric Educational Solutions.


Part I

DAN YERGERT: Hi On Point. My name is Dan Yergert and I'm a high school teacher on the outskirts of the Denver area in a town called Brighton.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Hi there, Dan. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti and this is On Point. Now, Dan is one of the slew of listeners who had stories to tell. When we asked you if you'd seen an increase in chronic absenteeism in your schools.

YERGERT: One of the things that I discovered through some attendance data is that at my high school, where we have about 1,700 students, we had about 800 students last semester in the fall 2023 semester that qualified as chronically absent. And a lot of those students were almost never at school at all.

CHAKRABARTI: So some quick math here. That's 47% percent of the students at Dan's school, they were chronically absent in the fall of 2023. 47%. Which by the way, means those 47% were missing at least one out of every 10 days of school. It's a huge number. In fact, the number of chronically absent students nationwide is twice as high now, twice as high as it was before the COVID shutdowns.

And you guessed it, poor attendance is linked to every sort of educational risk you can think of. Higher dropout rates, reduced career prospects, higher probability of being arrested. So here's more of what you've seen, teachers and parents, in your schools.


LISTENER #1: I have been a first-grade teacher for, this is my 30th year. I am in northern Idaho right now. Absenteeism is huge. The kids miss out on key learning, their friendships, their recess and lunch and PE. And parents aren't always seeing it quite as important as they used to.

LISTENER #2: Seems also that students more often than not, are more than willing to miss class for anything. And especially, since COVID.

LISTENER #3: I think with social media, the reduction in their attention span, they don't want to do homework, and I think it's because they just want to be doing anything but school. They want to be on their devices doing TikTok, Snapchat.

LISTENER #4: As a teacher, I can tell you that when you call students' parents, most of the time, they don't really know that their kids are missing.

LISTENER #5: My son teaches high school math. And sometimes it's because those students have to stay home to provide childcare for their younger siblings.

LISTENER #6: I understand the importance of attendance and what chronic absenteeism can do, but I also find the guidelines since COVID, very confusing. And in our case, extremely contradictory.

LISTENER #7: Parents don't get their kids to school. Or when we call and say, you drop your kid off and then he doesn't come to class ever. We get responses like it's my job to drop him off, and if you can't keep him there, then that's your problem. I don't know, man. It's wild.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, it is. But the question is, what can we do about it? Because this is a problem that needs effective solutions. So let's start today with Scott Hale. He's the principal of Johnstown High School in upstate New York in Johnstown, New York, in fact. Principal Hale, welcome to On Point.

SCOTT HALE: Hey Meghna. Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So tell me a little bit about what attendance was like in the high school before COVID. I would say that we really haven't changed much pre or post COVID. We just had an issue with chronic absenteeism as a whole. We saw a change in our community, a change in our demographics, and attending school became a struggle for many in our area.

So even post-COVID, we saw an uptick in our numbers. But we were sitting around 35%, 40% at the high school level of chronic absenteeism.

CHAKRABARTI: 35%to 40%. Okay. So high, no matter what. So what are some of the changes that you were talking about demographically or the which led to, I guess, a variety of reasons why students were missing so much school.

HALE: So I've been lucky enough to be in this district over 20 years, and we saw the socioeconomic status of our students. Our free and reduced lunch students increased significantly. So when I started here, we were around 15% of our students getting free and reduced lunch, and now we're up to about 60%.

60% of our students receiving free and reduced lunch. What we were looking at it was a generational thing. Where we saw families who didn't necessarily value education, or students coming to school and being educated.

CHAKRABARTI: Tell me more. So what we were doing, we saw, we started to take a punitive approach pre-COVID.

So there were those letters that were going home, threatening social services, child Protective Services, going to the house, visiting the home, being more punitive in nature. Working with our local politicians to take away the ability for students to receive a license, or potentially going after the parents and taking things away from the parents, as well.

And the punitive approach just was not working. So we really had to take a step back and rethink our approach. And really, we ultimately came up with what I believe, and I have wholeheartedly bought into this, was working with Attendance Works and really looking at a multi-tiered system of approach to help build a bridge between the community and the school and our students. And really strengthen relationships as opposed to harming those relationships and those bonds.

With families that you may have had previously.

CHAKRABARTI: Now Attendance Works is a non-profit initiative that's trying to work with schools and states trying to decrease that rate of chronic absenteeism. We'll hear from the executive director in a couple of minutes, but Principal Hale, can you describe to me some of the kind of impacts that you've seen on the students who are chronically absent, who are missing 10% or more school days throughout the year.

HALE: So really as a high school principal, ultimately you want your kids to be college and career ready. And obviously it affected graduation rate significantly. It affected them being educated. And them being prepared for that next step in their lives. When you see the dropout rate increase, when you see the graduation rates significantly lower than your schools and surrounding area, you knew that attendance was definitely one of the main reasons that high school students were struggling.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I want to go back to something you said earlier about the change in the socioeconomic dimensions in the community that the school serves. Because if I heard you correctly, you said that you felt there was an increase in the percentage of parents or families who didn't really, let's say, prioritize school. That's a serious thing to say. Aren't there also other factors that go into, that we need to take into consideration when we're talking about families who may be struggling to make ends meet? Because in the montage, for example, that we started the show off with, there was a parent who said, "Look sometimes," or a teacher who said, "Look, sometimes my kids are absent, high school kids are absent because they've got to stay at home to take care of their younger siblings who are sick."

Do you see that kind of thing as well?

HALE: Absolutely. That was, so we changed a couple of things. I think it was the older siblings taking care of their younger siblings. So what we did is we went to a universal start time throughout our district. We had schools starting at the high school at 7:45 a.m., and our elementary schools were starting at 9 a.m.

So what was happening is a lot of our students were tardy to school because they were taking their younger siblings or taking care of their younger siblings and bringing them to school. We changed our universal start time this year and we've seen a nice uptick of students who are making it to school on time, who were taking care of their younger siblings and getting them to school.

So that was one of the other changes that we really took a deep dive into, of students being late to school because of their younger siblings or not coming at all because of their younger siblings.

CHAKRABARTI: I wonder if some of the students who are chronically absent also, are they working as well or are there other factors that are keeping them from showing up regularly?

HALE: I don't think when we took a deep dive, we didn't see work as one of the main obstacles of students being chronically absent. I think the largest one now that we struggle with is social-emotional of our students and our teenagers. They have a lot of stress on them. I think we can attribute some of that to social media and to other environmental factors that they struggle with.

CHAKRABARTI: And so how is that being, how do you have to, how can you try and deal with that as an educator? Because yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.

HALE: So yeah, our superintendent, Dr. Crankshaw is fantastic when it came to supporting our school and our district through this initiative with attendance with our social emotional well-being of our students.

Throughout our district, we have what's called our SEAL team. We have put many supports in place in all of our buildings K-12, pre-K through 12, and SEAL stands for social emotional academic learning. And what we have in my building is we have a school psychologist. We have a social worker.

And to give you a little background, we have 600 students in our building. But we put a lot of a lot of thought into how we wanted to support our students' social, emotional, well-being, so I said school psychologist, social worker, a community outreach specialist, a counselor through our family counseling center and two school counselors.

So we put a lot of supports in place to make sure that our students, well-being is on the front burner.

CHAKRABARTI: Do you think this can be turned around? It sounds like there's a lot of challenges that the school was facing even prior to the pandemic, and I'm sure that COVID didn't help at all, but what do you think it's gonna take to turn it around?

I think we're already seeing the benefits of all supports we put in place. We've increased our attendance, our chronic absenteeism by around 7%, 8% for high school. And almost 10% for our elementary schools. And the reason I say, use the elementary schools as an example, and I think that's where you set the foundation.

Most of our students who are chronically absent at the high school level, if you were to look at trend data and you were to look at where they were at the elementary schools, they were chronically absent in the elementary schools as well. So through these initiatives that we're putting forth, we are definitely seeing huge improvement throughout the whole district.

And then at the end of the day, our graduation rate has increased significantly. And I think that's attributed to attendance and the relationships we've built through our mentoring program.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we're talking about the fact that chronic absenteeism in American schools, that means students missing 10% or more of school days. That rate has doubled across the nation, and a number of you told us that maybe mental health issues are playing a role in school absenteeism.


LISTENER #1: I'm a high school teacher. I teach social studies. I've noticed that there are two to three students in each of my class periods that struggle with chronic absenteeism from class. Oftentimes the reason that they're gone is because of anxiety and depression, and that's usually the most common answer that I get from them.

LISTENER #2: I'm a school adjustment counselor. We have seen a huge increase in chronically absent students. I work at the high school level and a lot of this is really due to mental health, anxiety, depression. Not being able to get out of bed, not having the proper outside mental health supports.

LISTENER #3: I have a senior in high school who is absent more now than before the pandemic. I think people are stressed. I think the kids are stressed. The amount of work and future planning, sometimes it's just a little overwhelming and sometimes a day to do nothing is in order. I do feel that mental health is important. If you need a mental health day, take it.

CHAKRABARTI: So that was Susan from New Hampshire. Beth from Massachusetts and Stephen from Utah. I'm joined today by Scott Hale. He is the principal of Johnstown High School in Johnstown, New York. And joining us now is Hedy Chang. Hedy is executive director of Attendance Works. It's a non-profit initiative, hoping to help districts and states decrease their chronic absenteeism.

And Hedy joins us from San Francisco. Welcome to On Point.

HEDY CHANG: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, describe the scope of this chronic absenteeism problem nationwide. Is it really happening everywhere?

CHANG: Yeah. Unfortunately, as you mentioned it, it doubled, so it's almost went from eight to about 15 million kids.

Almost 30% of all our kids. But the impact is not just on the 30% who are chronically absent. It's also on the kids who are in schools where 20% or more of the kids are chronically absent. Because then the churn is affecting teaching, learning, the setting of classroom norms. But before the pandemic, only about a quarter of all schools had 20% or more higher.

A quarter of all kids were in a school with 20% or more chronic absence, and now it is two thirds of all kids.

CHAKRABARTI: Two thirds. Okay.

CHANG: And you see this happening in urban, rural, suburban, towns, whatever, all these different places are affected by chronic absence and have schools with high and extreme levels of chronic absence.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm very glad that you said that, Hedy, because we did receive some feedback from listeners who said people who listen to public radio aren't the parents that you need to be reaching out to. And I thought first of all, that's a really narrow view.

Of who listens to On Point and second of all, wow, what a presumption that it's just certain groups of Americans, maybe lower socioeconomic groups that are the ones with the chronic absenteeism increase. And that's just wrong. This is a problem that's happening everywhere. It sounds like regardless of district, average income, race.

What not. So what did you wanna say something there, Hedy?

CHANG: I just wanted say, chronically absent kids, they do come from all backgrounds. White kids still make up the largest number of chronically absent kids. African American kids, Latino, kids of all backgrounds. I will say some kids particularly, and this connects to what Scott was talking about earlier, kids who are living in poverty are much more affected.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And this is why I wanna ask you about the impacts of the pandemic, right? Because as we know, one of the things that the pandemic did, I mean I said this for two years straight on this show, is that it put up a mirror to our society and made it impossible to look away from the challenges that many Americans were already facing, right?

When it came to not being able to make ends meet, when it came to, maybe it's just really difficult, even just to get to school, etc. Etc. The pandemic doubled or even tripled the amount of difficulties that some Americans were facing in comparison to others. What were the other things you think that the pandemic and particularly the duration of school closures in some places, how did they contribute to the increase in absenteeism we're seeing now, Hedy.

CHANG: Yeah. What we know that gets kids to school is when kids and families feel school is physically, emotionally healthy and safe, that they feel a sense of belonging, connection, support. They feel academic challenge and engagement, and they're surrounded by adults and students with the well-being to invest in the relationships that make all of those positive conditions for learning possible. The pandemic eroded these positive conditions, if you think about it, during the pandemic, because it used to be that you could be in a kind of a rough neighborhood and if school was high quality and was a safe place, kids would actually show up to school more. Because that was the safe place.

But now we're saying to kids and families, we did this for two and a half years. School's not so safe for you because we're worried about this COVID pandemic. Any sign of illness, you should stay home, right? Then we, and you do see, there's research we did with Connecticut where they looked at the kids who are in virtual learning and the kids who were in-person learning, and they found that virtual kids were just not coming to school so much in virtual learning. Now we try to stand up virtual learning very quickly, but there is a way in which that virtual connection is not the same thing as in-person connection. So if we want kids to feel and families to feel belonging, connection, support, then you have to have that in place and that got eroded.

For some kids who, because, again, it exacerbated challenges that existed before the pandemic. Some kids might not have actually felt these conditions before the pandemic. But now during the pandemic, many kids face those challenges. Now, I also want to say, during the pandemic, especially the year where we were back fully in person, '21, '22.

But we had two, Delta and Omicron and kids were missing right and left and being quarantined for long times. Kids lost out on key parts of learning. Learning is scaffolded. So then they come back highly anxious, because they don't feel like they can be successful in class.

In addition, kids haven't been around other kids. So knowing how to negotiate conflict, bullying has been a challenge. So now you're contributing to those issues of anxiety. Kids have both been disconnected, don't necessarily have other peers and adults they feel connected to, and we've made conditions that make learning feel harder.

And maybe the relationships to your peers harder.

CHAKRABARTI: Principal Hale. Let me hear from you. What do you think about what Hedy Chang has been saying? And have you seen those shifts in the relationship that kids and families have with the school?

HALE: Yeah, absolutely.

And Hedy, I can reiterate the supporting executive functioning piece that you said. It was one thing that I thought we missed in those years that we didn't have students in school. And that's something that through our mentoring program, we are really stressing that executive functioning piece for our students.

The relationships that they lacked for the year and a half that they were gone or not in the building or connecting through a computer screen. It was such a challenge. It was such a challenge to teachers. It was a challenge to families. It was a challenge to our students, and I really feel like we're starting to bounce back from that fully.

CHAKRABARTI: Hedy. Let me turn back to you here and you'll have to forgive me. Because I want to be brutally frank about something. And correct me if my understanding is wrong here, but the things that you described about the erosion of the core relationships and the sense of safety that students have had with their schools.

The erosion that was caused by prolonged building closures is a significant contributor to this increase in absenteeism. Now, schools were closed for different durations depending on the district and the state that you lived in here. In this country, you're in San Francisco there, that was a district that was closed amongst the longest in America.

So is there a relation, is there any correlation between the duration of those closures and essentially the cutting off of the kinds of relationships that students relied on and how much chronic absenteeism is increasing now in those districts?

CHANG: I think there is some evidence of, there's a relationship between the two.

I will also say, this was an extremely difficult time with people trying to figure out how do they balance keeping kids healthy and safe, and families not dying because of a pandemic and how long you should keep it closed. What I would say though is I really think this is where data was helpful.

So I think about Connecticut for example, which at the time put in, had data systems so that they could track what was happening for kids in-person and in virtual learning. And they could then see when virtual learning wasn't working and actually reach out to kids. So they would come back.

And that also meant they had a pretty robust measure of what was attendance. So it wasn't just you showed up for one of the problems that happened during virtual learning, is sometimes because we didn't want to penalize kids and families for facing difficulties. We made it really easy to be counted as showing up.

But it meant that if kids counted because they just showed up for 10 seconds on Zoom, that you didn't notice. They were chronically absent, and you didn't reach out and support them. So another problem with virtual learning is we actually then lost all the cues because the key to chronic absence is noticing early on, so you can take steps and intervene in the same way that they're doing in Johnstown.

CHAKRABARTI: I completely agree with you about it was a very scary, confusing time, especially at the beginning of the pandemic about what to do. But I don't want to shove down the memory hole, the fact that many other countries, peer nations in the United States, got kids back into school much faster than some states here did.

And with this chronic absenteeism and other educational measures that we've seen in the years following the pandemic. The impact on children is very long term. About how long some schools were closed here in the United States. And we actually heard that from listeners, as well, in terms of them seeing, these are educators who reached out to us.

We're seeing a shift in the attitudes that children themselves have about the relevance and even importance of school. So here's a couple of them. Here's Megan from Corvallis, Oregon.

Megan's an attendance clerk at a high school there. And her school has convened roundtable discussions with students to ask them directly why they're staying home so often.

MEGAN: And the most commonly cited reasons were that the pandemic proved schooling could be done from home. They no longer need school for social interactions with social media and school unity or spirit seems to be a thing of the past. When we asked what we could do to encourage better attendance, we got crickets.

CHAKRABARTI: So that's Megan from Corvallis, Oregon. Here's Dan Yergert, a high school teacher in Brighton, Colorado. You heard him at the top of the show as well. He's also a graduate student and he's researching chronic absenteeism. He's interviewed chronically absent students, and he says many of them don't even realize that not attending regularly is a problem.

YERGERT: We have a couple of students who perceive that they're doing fine, even though they might have been absent for 70 periods in the last month or something like that. Partially because a lot of these students were in middle school during COVID and so little was asked of them. That in comparison, they feel like they're actually doing quite a bit now.

CHAKRABARTI: And here's one more. This is Tracy from Clearwater, Florida. She's got a son who's a senior in high school and she says she doesn't just think students have diminished motivation, but some teachers too, because of the stress of the pandemic.

TRACY: My child's in honors classes. He has five of them and he states consistently that one teacher actually teaches the others. He sits at his computer, there are teachers at their computer. And there's no instruction at all from the teachers. So he calls it adult babysitting and really feels that the value is not there. And I feel this does lead to that absenteeism because they're not actively being taught.

They feel like they can just do their assignments at night when they're out of school, submit them because everything's online and still get the credit and be fine. So how do we bring the spark back also to the teachers who were demoralized by the pandemic so that the teachers can impact the students and their desire to learn.

CHAKRABARTI: So Hedy, what I want to ask you. We're going to get to all the sort of concrete and let's say programmatic solutions. That schools can try. But this core question that Tracy in Florida is asking, like how to bring that spark back in terms of wanting to be in school, not just for the teachers who have been working so hard, but for students as well.

How would you start doing that?

CHANG: I think it's about relationships. When we really, and so one of the things, there are four things they talk about that this is something that Bob Balfanz talks about, that when kids come to school, they feel a sense of connectedness. And what is that connectedness?

One is you feel that there's an adult who cares about you. Two is you have kids, peers, who you're connected to. Three, you're involved in something pro-social, something where you're at school and you are making a difference with other students. And the last is you feel welcomed. And cared for and invited to be on campus.

If we could put those four things in place, and that starts with relationships, and it means we have to build relationship building into the structure of how schools operate. And I also think for young kids, this is about families too. One of the things that I've seen is so challenging, is both because of the pandemic, but because also of concerns about school safety.

Families and kids aren't on school, families don't drop their kids off on school campuses. They drop 'em outside and then kids walk in. We don't, it's harder to build that relationship between the parent and the teacher, but we know things like relational home visits where teachers have a chance to go and visit families before school starts can make a measurable difference.

We know that when you can have kids for being peer mentors to each other, that can make a difference. It's about creating those relationships. So we see each other, we hear each other, and we see how we are actually better together.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Hale, before we just take our next break here have you seen, as you said, you're starting to turn things around, has relationship building been a part of that?

HALE: That is the thing that we are magnifying. It's what we are spotlighting is relationships. Through Attendance Works, we did come up with our mentoring program with our teachers. And what we do is students who we see could potentially be chronically absent or are chronically absent.

We assign them to mentors. And I think the biggest thing, we talk in broad terms all the time. We say they, them, families. It was really honing in on the individual student, and that's what the mentoring program did. Our mentors have about three to four students who they mentor throughout the school year, and they build a strong relationship with these kids.

I will tell you, I had a student who had a 44 average in math. And through the mentoring program, he jumped his average up to an 81.48 and he attributes that to the relationship that he built with his mentor and someone showing that they care about him.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Now, I'm hoping both of you can listen along with me. Because we talked to many people doing our background and reporting for this show.

And one of them was Todd Rogers, who's a professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Chief Scientist at Everyday Labs. Now he's done research in attendance nudges. These are low-cost strategies that districts can use to reach a large number of chronically absent students, and they're things like mailing letters home. As long as they're worded in the right way, these can make a difference. For example, by comparing a student's attendance record to that of their peers. That's according to Todd's research.

TODD ROGERS: The way that initially started was by sending almost monthly mailers to families that are tailored using their kids' data.

So your kid has missed 10 days. Your kid's classmates have missed seven. We tend to conform to the behavior of others. So we say your kid has missed a little more than their classmates and so recalibrating on how many days their kid has missed and how it compares to their classmates. And using it in a way that is not punitive, but is actually much more from an asset-based lens, which is parents or partners.

We all share the interest in the kid's success, with language tailored that way, proves to be outrageously cost-effective at reducing absenteeism.

CHAKRABARTI: Now with experimental data, Todd's been able to find out which attendance nudges work, and which ones don't. We actually found in a very large, randomized trial across 10 districts using 10,000 high school kids, that sending a specific kind of award, which is a certificate saying congratulations on perfect attendance, decreases subsequent attendance relative to not giving it to them.

And the later in follow-up studies, what we found, is that they interpret an award as saying you attend school more than your classmates.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, one of the most successful nudges was a simple rewrite of California's truancy letters. Previously, schools in the state would mail these letters to families of students with at least three unexcused absences, and the letters tended to be full of jargon and also threatened legal action against families.

ROGERS: We rewrote them. Cut the words, cut the language, reading level and said, we're on your team. We're worried about your kid. How do, how we need, how can we help? And we ran a massive randomized control trial in LA with 130,000 families and found that rewriting it as if you intend for humans to understand it and if you want to be a partner, made it about 40% more effective.

CHAKRABARTI: Hedy Chang, what about, what do you think about these district-wide changes in strategy, these little nudges.

CHANG: Yeah, first of all, I was actually partnering with Todd on the LA truancy shift in notification. And I think I would start there as one of the most important things we can do. Because there are many places that have truancy notifications that start off in a really negative tone and they're actually undermining the ability to forge a partnership with kids and families. To identify and then address the problems that might be creating, that might be leading them to not showing up to school. And when we start with a threat, it just makes them angry and not want to talk to us.

That's something we can absolutely do everywhere, where I think it's important to think about. And the other part of not Todd's work, which is on making sure that families know how many days kids actually missed. That is also important. Because families don't necessarily know that, nor understand how it is taking away that invaluable in time of instruction in the classroom. What I think we have to rethink a little bit is this issue of peer.

Because when a lot of that research was done, it was when chronic absence was, it's not at the incredibly high levels that we see now. And one of the challenges we face with, as I said, two thirds of all kids in a school with 20% or more of their kids, of the kids chronically absent, is that kids and families think chronic absence more is the norm.

And I think that we have to be taking a group approach to shifting that. I know that actually when Everyday Labs uses the peer comparisons, they only use it when the comparison is less than the absenteeism of the kid who's being reached to. And if that's not the case, you're going to fall into the trap of what Todd said with the attendance [incentive] rewards.

Because kids then think, Oh, I am, I can miss this much because everyone else is. I think we have to actually continue to modify what we think are the best messages about making sure that kids see the value of being in school.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Speaking of how districts approach the language and even just the overall approach that they use to engage with families about talking with them about truancy. There are other ideas out there, for example, and I know both of you're familiar with these, but Aaris Johnson is director of a group called Home Visits and Reengagement at Concentric Educational Solutions.

It's a company that contracts with school districts working to combat absenteeism. They're based in Baltimore. They've got teams across the country, and they go and visit homes of students who are chronically absent. But Aaris told us that their visits are not meant to be punitive.

AARIS JOHNSON: We are not truancy officers. I get that question off there. Are you truancy officers? No, we are not. You're not in trouble. When we come to talk, we're coming specifically to find out what is going on, what is actually causing Little Johnny or little Jane from actually coming to school every day. If nobody's actually going to the door to find out, you won't find out.

So it's sometimes a phone call does not work. Sometimes you actually have to just go to the home.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Aaris finds that families often have multiple barriers to regular attendance. A parent's grueling work schedule combined with poor options for transportation. And he told us about one mother in Baltimore who had to commute 75 minutes, so an hour and 15 minutes each morning to her job in Washington D.C.

She had to leave home by 5 a.m. every day. So she was dropping her son off with a family member to drop them off the school, which wasn't always getting to school. And if he was getting there, extremely late.

CHAKRABARTI: After these home visits, Aaris reports back to the schools to help them figure out what support each student and family needs to overcome the barriers that are keeping them out of school regularly. And often, Aaris says that the relationships he builds with students go a long way towards bringing them back into school. So he tries to connect over shared interests and experiences. He remembers visiting one chronically absent student who dreamed of becoming a football player.

JOHNSON: I told him I knew what it took to be a professional football player.

He says, you're sitting here knocking on my door. And I had him type my name in on his phone. and he saw my picture with the New York Giants in 2005. So he said, "Okay, I'm listening." I said, "First things first, you gotta go to school."

CHAKRABARTI: And finally, Aaris says that investing in these kinds of non-punitive home visits and investing is the word. He says it's worth it for school districts.

JOHNSON: Because you never know.

What that home visit can do to impact the life of a child. Every time we knock on the door, we are attempting to save a child's life.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Hale, excuse me, Principal Hale didn't mean to, didn't mean to fire you out of your job as a school leader. So Principal Hale have you tried home visits or what do you even just think about the idea.

HALE: I love the idea of home visits. I actually enjoy doing home visits, and there are times I'll bring my teachers along to go on a home visit or bring our SEAL staff along to go on a home visit, because it paints the picture. It paints the picture of where the child may be coming from, where the family may be coming from, and what struggles they may have, whether it's a mental health struggle. Or, they're not fiscally or financially stable. And all of those opportunities that we might have or feel that every family has, they might not have that. So it just paints so much of a better picture. So I do enjoy the home visit, and again, approaching it as a, how do we support you? How can we help you?

CHAKRABARTI: Hedy Cheng. So there's a lot of the examples that we shared are focused on outreach to families, which clearly seem to be an important part of the puzzle here. But I would like to for a second, bring the focus back into school buildings. What are the sort of specific other concrete measures that you've taken with the schools that Attendance Works has worked with in order to decrease chronic absenteeism.

CHANG: Yeah. What's we find is essential is helping schools really take a kind of public health approach which starts with universal supports. An example is actually nudge letters and letting families or changing your truancy notifications so that when kids miss school, they get a letter that is positive. That says, I miss you. It's also about making sure that you have ways in the school, like advisories at the high school. So there is a approach to developing relationships. It's also thinking about school climate. If kids don't think that the disciplinary approaches and practices are fair, they may not come back the day when you want them to come back.

So you have to invest in school climate, in communications, in messaging, making sure that kids and families understand when they miss school, what they're missing out on and why they should be there. And then you want to add to that, additional supports like mentors or home visits, when those universal supports are insufficient.

And you really need to have a team in place. And I know this is happening in Johnstown, that's looking at their data and looking at each tier of these supports. So they can see what's missing, what we need to add to it and which of the kids that might need additional supports. And when you do that, you can turn things around.

Okay. So I keep hearing there's a recurring theme here, which seems to make so much sense once both of you have laid it out about relationship building, about recreating or recapturing or creating a culture in the schools that really publicly values attendance, things like that, makes a lot of sense.

But I wanna just for a second, turn back to something that you said earlier, Hedy. About how people changed their thresholds of how they might, when they might keep their kids home when they're sick, coupled with just still, a lot of parents find contradictory rules about when the districts require them to keep their kids home when they're sick, and this is still like COVID quarantines, etc.

So we got a lot of parent input on that. And here's some of what they had to say.


LISTENER #1: After COVID, it seems that my kids are getting sick so much more. I think all of these months of wearing masks, they were not exposed to as many things, and it seems like now they stay home for maybe a week at a time even.

LISTENER #2: I have three children. One is now in college. I have one in high school and one in middle school. And I think there are times when I would have had my children go to school before the pandemic when they were slightly ill or ill, whereas now I'm really keeping them home more so when they're sick, so that other kids and teachers don't get sick.

LISTENER #3: I think one of the issues for the chronic absenteeism are that a lot of parents are being cautious because of the COVID-19 precautions and staying at home when children are sick. So the slightest, sniffle, cough, cold, more students are being kept home.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Charlotte from Washington D.C, Alicia from Denver, Colorado, and Annette from San Juan Capistrano in California.

Hedy, what do you think about that?

The parental caution is understandable. But given that you were talking about looking at this problem as a public health issue, are certain district rules, for example now, do you think they're too strict in terms of the number of school days kids have to miss if, for example, they get sick?

CHANG: I think part of what's confusing is that rules have changed a lot. And people have in their mind a strict rule which may actually not be in place. If I just take the example of California, they recently announced that if you have COVID and you stopped having fever and symptoms.

You can actually go back with a mask. You don't have to stay out the whole five days. That is actually an announcement that the public health department made for all of California. Now, I think what I would say, there are two things that we need to really think about. One is I think we lost during the pandemic and investment in those things that keep kids from getting sick in the first place.

Washing hands, making sure kids get access to health care, making sure that if kids have asthma, they have supports to deal with that while they're on the school campus, making sure they have access to vision care, dental care. Many kids did not get those supports. And if we can make sure kids don't get sick in the first place, that is ideal.

And then we also have to have clear, understandable guidance that says, what are these changed rules now? How long, when should I keep my kid home, because they are so sick. Sniffles that are about allergies are not a reason to keep a kid home. Stomachache that's about anxiety, is not a reason to keep a kid home.

But if they have been sick. When do you keep them home? And how long do you need to keep them home? Because we have this guidance from quarantine days that I believe is not true in most places anymore.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. What is at stake? Hedy, if, nationwide, we don't get a handle on this increase in chronic absenteeism. What is at stake for those students?

CHANG: What we know is that chronic absence starting as early as pre-K, and is associated with kids not reading proficiently, not counting proficiently in third grade. In middle school, it's associated with greater behavioral issues and less likelihood to achieve.

In high school, it is associated with dropping out and it is even associated with kids being less likely to continue and persist in college.

CHAKRABARTI: Sorry, I just paused there because it seems as you're saying, when the problem especially begins young, that it's just, it's a domino effect throughout a young person's not just school career, but possibly their lives.

CHANG: Absolutely. And it has long-term health outcomes. The health issues are, and this is why, by the way, we need a very different partnership with our public health departments, with our physicians. Chronic absence is a public health crisis because health issues lead to children not showing up regularly. And health, if kids don't graduate from high school, it leads to worse long-term health outcomes.

This program aired on February 1, 2024.


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Daniel Ackerman is a producer primarily working across WBUR's national shows.


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Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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