94% of Utahns say school attendance is important but nearly 25% of kids are chronically absent
Utah’s new state school report card reveals nearly one-quarter of Utah students are chronically absent, meaning they aren’t in school at least 10% of the school year
Two Granite School District elementary school principals have entered a high-stakes wager this school year.
It all hinges on boosting regular school attendance at Whittier and Jackling elementary schools in West Valley City, both part of the Hunter High School feeder system.
If Jackling Elementary School wins, Whittier Principal Jennifer Bodell will shave off Jackling Principal Brett Bawden’s beard during an all-school assembly at his school.
“If Whittier wins, then he will come over to my school and douse me in pink slime because I’m kind of a fan of pink,” said Bodell.
While the wager is a friendly competition between the schools, both principals are serious about increasing regular school attendance, which fell to record lows during the pandemic nationwide.
The just-released Utah State Board of Education public school report card indicates that just 76.7% of secondary and 75.2% of K-8 students attended school consistently in the 2022-23 school year, slight increases from the previous year.
The state board’s absenteeism and dropout prevention specialist Amy Steele-Smith said absent students miss out on instruction, which is critical, but even more problematic when many students are recovering from learning losses related to the pandemic.
“But we also know that students and kids learn a whole bunch of other things in the educational setting such as social development, how to play, how to interact with each other,” which are skills that serve them over their lifetimes, Steele-Smith said.
Chronic absences are high nationally and, unfortunately, Utah is no exception, she said.
Results of a recent poll for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics indicate the vast majority of Utahns believe regular school attendance is important.
Ninety-four percent of Utahns polled said regular school attendance is important. Just 5 % said it was not important and 1% said they do not know. The poll of 802 Utahns was conducted Oct. 12-23 and has a 3.46% margin of error.
But when it comes to chronic absences from school, meaning students are gone at least 10% of the school year, just 39% of respondents said they were concerned. Fifty eight percent said they were not concerned and 4% responded that they did not know.
Educators are highly concerned about chronic absences because they impact academic mastery and social wellbeing.
The state report card indicates slight improvement in grade-level mastery in English language arts and science for all students over a year ago but declines in math.
Statewide, the highest grade-level mastery was in science among students K-8 but that was 49.5%.
Nationally, a review by the Center for School and Student Progress published at the start of the 2022–23 school year notes evidence that students are rebounding from the impacts of the pandemic.
“It is encouraging to see that students are continuing to improve, but we are likely still several years away from reaching full academic recovery, and this timeline is misaligned with the availability of federal funding to support recovery,” the center reported.
At Whittier Elementary, attendance secretary Heather Lane works closely with students who last year had some of the lowest attendance rates, some of whom missed more than 18 days of school.
This year, the cohort’s absences have been significantly reduced and Lanes’ efforts have shifted to ensuring students arrive at school on time.
This week, she treated students who are meeting attendance goals to a caramel apple-making party. Students who reach incremental goals, such as daily attendance or attending four or five days each week receive other incentives.
Lane said it is also important to connect with the students’ parents, particularly when she is aware of a family issue that presents more challenges than usual.
“I know one mom, she’s just had surgery, but she’s still getting her kids here,” Lane said.
“She knows how important it is to them and she has seen a difference in her kids” when they regularly attend school, she said.
Bodell said other efforts to improve school attendance at Whittier this academic year started last summer when teachers received the lists of students who would be in their classes.
“I asked teachers to do home visits before school starts to be in families’ homes, and just get to know that family and the kids. It’s not a time to tell them about how they’ll be graded. It’s a time to connect with the families because we believe that relationships are everything. and we want kids to want to come to school,” Bodell said.
As the school has done more outreach, the school staff has learned more about challenges families are experiencing that impact the students regular school attendance.
COVID continues to make some families think twice about sending their children to school if they are sick. Some absences are due to habits formed when COVID was at its peak. Other times, parents have overslept or their child is needed at home to babysit a younger sibling so a parent can go to work.
“With some of these families, I mean it would break your heart,” Bodell said.
“To me, it comes down to the commitment of the parents, but I don’t want to flat out make that judgment call either because life is hard and stressful. We’re in a community where parents are trying to earn a living and some parents have three jobs to do it. I honestly feel parents are doing the best that they can,” she said.
Changing the trajectory requires building relationships with families, Bodell said.
“I’ve asked teachers when a student is out for three days, maybe even two, to make that phone call home. Parents want to know ‘Oh, they do miss my child there.’ I strongly believe it’s the relationship piece and we’re getting better at that and making it a focus when it comes to attendance and just not the relationship when they’re here, but what are we doing to build a relationship when they’re not here?” she said.
USBE’s Steele-Smith said the educational system’s response to COVID may have created confusion about the importance of regular school attendance, particularly among parents who continue to work by remote or on hybrid work schedules.
While remote work can be equally effective in some industries, Steele-Smith the difference is, adults have already learned the softer skills that make them successful in those settings such as regular attendance, completing tasks or working well in groups.
Children learn those skills at school so they need to be in class, she said.
Some parents excuse absences so their child can take part in a family trip or some other experience important to their families, but “missing is missing,” Steele-Smith said.
Some families may have the wherewithal to hire tutors to ensure their children stay on track academically, “we’re still missing that component of all of the reasons why attendance is beneficial. When you miss school, whether you’re excused or unexcused, you’re still missing out on all of those pieces,” she said.