A bill that seeks to reduce the significant spike in chronic absenteeism in Utah schools since the pandemic reached final passage in the Utah Legislature earlier this week.

Among Utah students living in poverty, 37% were chronically absent in 2022, while 27% of students statewide were chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year, according to data provided by the Utah State Board of Education.

More than half of the state’s students are chronically absent or “on the cusp” of being chronically absent, according to an earlier presentation on HB400 by Patty Norman, state deputy superintendent of student achievement.

“That means in our educational system, we have over 50% of our students who are at risk of being chronically absent. So if we walk that dog down the road, that means they’re not attending school, they’re not getting credit, and when a student doesn’t get credit, they don’t graduate,” Norman said.

Chronic absence is defined as being absent for more than 10% of days enrolled. It differs from truancy in that parents and guardians have excused the absences.

Numbers of chronically absent students statewide have climbed substantially since the 2017-2018 school year, when 12.9% were missing at least 10% of the time, which is approximately 18 days, state data shows.

That number climbed to 19% in the 2020-2021 school year and 27.2% in the 2021-2022 school year, according to state data.

HB400, sponsored by Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, won final approval in the House of Representatives by a vote of 53-19. The Senate passed the bill 16-7.

During floor debate, Johnson said state data show that chronic absences of kindergartners can set the stage for poor attendance in succeeding years. The percentage of kindergarten students who were chronically absent in 2017-2018 was 18.3%.

“This past year, it was 36.7%,” said Johnson, which he described as “alarming.”

The percentage increase is notable as Utah prepares to further expand full-day kindergarten statewide and funding kindergarten students on par with their older peers beginning this fall.

HB400 promotes early prevention efforts, Johnson said.

“It requires evidence-based action on the part of the Utah State Board of Education to institute code to get kids back in school. It also requires cooperation between the LEAs (local education agencies), the State Board of Education and the Division of Juvenile Justice and Youth Services,” he said.

The bill is “a very foundational piece of getting kids back in school, and making sure that we keep them there. We will work with their mothers and fathers. We know that kids who are well educated are what makes Utah strong,” Johnson said.

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Norman said there is no single reason for the increase in chronic absenteeism so interventions need to take into consideration each student’s circumstances and tailor supports to their needs.

“It could be the fact that they’re watching a younger sibling. It could be the fact that they couldn’t get to school. It could be the fact that they’re going on vacation and their parent thinks it’s OK. There’s so many different things that are a part of this, and it’s almost to the point where we need to meet individually with parents and say, ‘What is it that you need? What are the concerns and how do we mitigate this?’” Norman said.

Rising rates of chronic absenteeism are worrisome because such students can have higher rates of juvenile justice system involvement and engage in risky behaviors, which can contribute to negative health outcomes in adulthood.

Brett Peterson, director of the Division of Juvenile Justice and Youth Services, agrees that the underlying causes of chronic absenteeism can be difficult to identify but regular school attendance helps children on many fronts.

“The number one protective factor for juvenile justice involvement is education. That really is like a centerpiece to keeping kids out of the system,” Peterson said.