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Opinion: COVID school closures are over — so where are the missing kids?

Absenteeism in schools is a rising problem, with 19% of Utah kids in 2021 considered chronically absent. What can we do to get them back to school?

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First grade teacher Jamie Greenwood looks at a large sheet of clear plastic that hangs from the ceiling in her classroom.

First grade teacher Jamie Greenwood looks at a large sheet of clear plastic that hangs from the ceiling in her classroom at Westvale Elementary School in West Jordan on Aug. 19, 2020. Utah educators are concerned about the increase in chronically absent students.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Most schools in Utah reopened their doors in August 2020, but not everyone came back. According to the Utah State Board of Education, in 2021 19% of students in Utah were considered chronically absent — nearly double the percent since 2012.

A student is considered chronically absent when they have missed 10% of the days in a school year. This adds up to about a month of instruction, which is paramount in learning foundational skills in elementary school, where the highest percentage of students are chronically absent.

From 2020 to 2021, the number of early elementary students on grade level fell from 60% to only half. It’s also important to note that a month per year is a minimum to be considered chronically absent. Many of these students are missing much more and, in some cases, entire school years.

The COVID-19 pandemic is commonly considered the primary cause for the rise in school absences. A national survey conducted by Emily Kroshus et al., found that 30% of parents did not plan on sending their children back to school in fall 2020. Many of these families were considered low-income or unemployed. But, with most schools back to only operating in-person, why are so many students still missing?

The truth is, although 2021 saw a significant jump in absences, the rates have been rising over the last 10 years.

Voices for Utah Children believes that chronic absenteeism is a “two-generational issue.” When parents lack family leave, sufficient transportation or school support to help mitigate barriers to attendance, their children’s attendance suffers. They also recognize that it can be a result of low quality education, alienation from school, bullying, chaotic school environments and high teacher turnover

Is there anything we can do to get kids back in school?

Utah temporarily suspended its Compulsory Education law in response to pandemic related school closures, but was reinstated as of June 1, 2022. This law makes failure to enroll a child in school or meet with school officials to discuss their child’s absences a class B misdemeanor. And failure to make a “good faith effort” to get your child to school could lead to an investigation from the Department of Child and Family Services. Having legal consequences for chronic absences may increase attendance, but Utah was already seeing a drop in attendance before this law was put on pause. And these consequences do not apply if parents excuse their child’s absences — up to 100 days per school year.

A Michigan based study conducted by Dr. Naomi N. Duke showed that school connectedness increased school attendance for high-risk students. Duke highlighted three ways to create a sense of belonging in schools.

First, discipline students fairly. Personal bias of school personnel has been shown to affect discipline rates in schools, with many minority groups receiving harsher consequences. Second, create equitable opportunities for participation. Similarly to her first point, implicit bias may lead educators to view some youths as less motivated to participate in school and offer fewer opportunities in response. Third, provide mentorship opportunities between school staff and students. Feeling connected to an adult in school has shown to have positive outcomes on attendance and overall performance.

Still, increasing school connectedness does not remove the intergenerational barriers to education mentioned earlier. Voices for Utah Children advocates for stable housing, sufficient transportation and improved health care to mediate the risk of chronic absenteeism in Utah schools, a problem that is 90% more likely for low-income students

The government funding used to prosecute families for school absences should instead be used to train school staff on best practices to decrease absenteeism, create public service announcements on the importance of education, and mediate the systemic barriers to attendance.

But in the meantime, Utah parents should not be confronted with threats of legal action, but instead with compassion. School officials should meet parents where they are and ask, “What does your family need to get your kids in school?” Sometimes, all it takes is a family feeling welcome in the school.  

Kate Jones is a master of social work student at the University of Utah with an interest in working in Utah’s public school system.