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Chronic Absenteeism: Reasons, Effects, and Solutions

Most states define chronic absenteeism as missing 10% of total school days, which is an average of 2 days a month. In the past decade, chronic absenteeism has risen across the nation. Education Week cites that US schools’ chronic absenteeism rate hit almost 30% in the 2021-22 school year, which according to the US Department of Education is doubling that of 2015-16 rates. Closer to home, the South Dakota Department of Education website states, “Since the 2018-2019 school year, the rate of chronic absenteeism has nearly doubled in South Dakota.” South Dakota Searchlight reports that in the 2022-23 school year, 21% of South Dakota students were chronically absent. In Todd County the rate was at 40%; in Sioux Falls, 25%; in Watertown, 20%; and in Mitchell, 18%. KOTA reported in the fall of 2022 that Rapid City schools had a 29% absenteeism rate.

The reasons for increased absenteeism are plentiful and diverse.

  • Personal and family health issues create frequent absences.

    • Post-pandemic, parents are more likely to keep their children home at any sign of illness because of health concerns and also because more parents have the ability to work from home since the pandemic.
    • Mental and emotional struggles are cited as reasons for absences more than ever before.
  • Learning Management Systems (LMS’s) – online platforms that house instructional materials and assignments – make learning easier from home and can even create the illusion that the same learning that occurs in the classroom can occur at home.

    • Family trips are easier to take at any time with the emergence of LMS’s.
    • Staying home for physical, mental, or emotional reasons is easier because of LMS’s.
  • Poverty affects attendance through lack of childcare, transportation, and other resources. Older students sometimes stay home to care for their siblings.
  • Frustrations with learning or with peers also gets cited as a reason for absences.

The effects of chronic absenteeism go beyond missing lessons.

  • The classroom environment is negatively affected as teachers support many students who have frequent absences while also continuing with the normal flow of learning for the others.
  • Missed learning impacts students’ academic growth and sense of hope.
  • Missed socializing impacts students’ emotional wellbeing and social development.
  • Missed mentoring affects students’ sense of hope and their development of positive social and academic behaviors.

Schools are working hard to find and implement solutions to the problem of chronic absenteeism and need all of the community support they can get. Research has not found much success with schools taking punitive measures, so most are focusing on the causes.

  • Students need frequent and explicit instruction from all fronts about the value of attending and finishing school.
  • Home and school connections are vital. Parents and educators are a team.
  • School activities provide students with a sense of belonging, as well as increased accountability for being present at school.
  • Connections inside the school increase attendance rates. Students often say they go to school to see their friends or because they know that Mr./Ms. ___ will notice if they are gone.
  • Mental health services help students develop strategies for addressing the stress or anxiety they feel about school.
  • Transportation assistance is a game-changer for some families.

Chronic absenteeism in our schools is a complicated and complex issue when looked at as a whole. However, if we all do our part – whether that be in classrooms, homes, community groups, or workplaces – progress can be made so that children do not miss out on necessary academic, social, and behavioral growth.

Gina Benz has taught for over 23 years in South Dakota. She currently teaches Teacher Pathway (a class she helped develop), English 3, English 3 for immigrant and refugee students, and AP English Language at Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls, as well as Technology in Education at the University of Sioux Falls.

In 2015 Gina was one of 37 educators in the nation to receive the Milken Educator Award. Since then she has written and spoken on a state and national level about teacher recruitment and grading practices. Before that she received the Presidential Scholar Program Teacher Recognition Award and Roosevelt High School’s Excellence in Instruction Award in 2012 and the Coca-Cola Educator of Distinction Award in 2007.