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Getting Back to Class: How States Are Addressing Chronic Absenteeism

As high rates of K-12 absenteeism persist, students face negative academic, social and economic consequences.

By Sierra Milligan  |  July 3, 2024

Although chronic absenteeism has decreased in most states since the end of the pandemic, rates are still much higher than pre-pandemic levels.

More than 14.7 million students—about twice the population of New Jersey—were chronically absent from K-12 schools during the 2021-22 school year. This means they missed 10% or more of the school days within a year, or about two days a month, for any reason.

It’s easy to confuse chronic absenteeism with truancy, but they are different. Chronic absenteeism refers to a broader attendance record, counting absences regardless of whether they were excused. Truancy includes only unexcused absences. Chronic truancy can lead to entanglement in the juvenile justice system.

Chronic absenteeism has broad impacts on students’ academic, social and economic well-being. Students miss instruction and opportunities to engage with peers. Low attendance hurts students’ ability to form healthy relationships, and even in elementary education, can negatively affect high school graduation rates and increase the likelihood of struggling with poverty in adulthood.

Factors contributing to chronic absenteeism include disengagement with school material, health challenges, bullying, strict attendance policies, feeling unsafe, limited parental support and lack of transportation.

Research has found that creating positive relationships between students, families and schools helps to mitigate chronic absenteeism. These relationships increase student engagement and allow collaboration between schools and families to address the unique factors impacting a student’s attendance.

With this research in mind, state legislators approach chronic absenteeism in many ways, including:

  • Addressing the underlying issues behind chronic absenteeism.
  • Establishing outreach services to forge relationships and find solutions.
  • Enhancing data collection practices to better understand challenges and possible solutions.
  • Leveraging legal interventions, including rewriting attendance policies and working with local attorneys to address truancy.

Underlying Issues

Addressing the underlying factors that affect chronic absenteeism depends on the state’s specific context. Pending legislation in Hawaii (HB 1797), for example, would address transportation issues by appropriating more funds for bus drivers’ salaries, buying alternative vehicles and providing additional transportation services to increase student access to schools.

Colorado (SB 142) recently created a pilot program for oral health screenings to reduce physical health concerns that lead to chronic absenteeism. Students in kindergarten and third grade receive the screenings, and parents receive the results and educational resources on oral health. The pilot program will collect data on how oral health screenings affect students until summer 2026, at which point the program will be renewed or stopped.

Outreach Services

Unlike legislation addressing underlying issues, outreach legislation provides ways to work with chronically absent students to identify and resolve the individual causes of their absences. A pending Rhode Island bill (HB 7289) would create a two-year pilot program to reach out to chronically absent high school students to help reduce the factors contributing to their absenteeism and collect data to determine the effectiveness of providing such services. For example, the outreach services would include transportation services for students who currently lack a ride to school.

Enhancing Data Collection

A pending Minnesota bill (HB 3827) would enhance the state’s attendance reporting requirements by collecting statistics on chronic absenteeism rates to determine if rates vary based on grade level, gender, financial status, disability, race or ethnicity, homeless status or English learner status.

Maine enacted a bill (HB 1191) in 2023 that established a method of calculating the rate of chronic absenteeism for individual schools. Using the school level calculation, schools must form attendance review teams to provide outreach services when a specific percentage of students are chronically absent.

Legal Solutions

Iowa (SB 2435) required school districts to adopt policies that establish different interventions and penalties for students who are chronically absent. If a student is chronically absent, a school official is required to notify a local county attorney and the student’s parent or legal guardian. Additionally, the school must host a meeting with parents to create a prevention plan to identify and address the underlying causes of the student’s absences. If the absenteeism prevention plan is not followed, the county attorney can take further legal action.

Similarly, West Virginia (SB 568) allows school districts to file a claim with the county magistrate against a student’s legal guardian, parent or custodian if a student has more than 10 unexcused absences. Upon finding that probable cause exists for the claim, a warrant can be issued against one or more of the student’s legal guardians, parents or custodians.

For more information on chronic absenteeism and current policies addressing it, see NCSL’s student attendance webpage.

To learn more about specific chronic absenteeism legislation, view the K-12 Education Database.

Sierra Milligan is an intern in NCSL’s Education Program.

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