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The number of students who are chronically absent in Illinois spiked during the pandemic. What are school districts going to do to keep students in classes this year?

Max Herman for Chalkbeat

Illinois students missed a lot of school last year: ‘It’s a sign that something isn’t working’

The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

For the past 19 years, when students in Kane County have missed school, Kari Glenn has visited their homes to see what’s preventing them from attending classes.

As a truancy officer, she says this year has been the hardest. 

In one of the families Glenn works with, the single parent died, leaving behind four young children. “Now they’re going to be living with a relative and that relative isn’t completely prepared to take on four little kids,“ she said. 

Since the coronavirus pandemic has hit the communities her schools serve the hardest, Glenn said that home visits have become more essential than ever. It’s been harder to reach families over the phone and their lives have drastically changed as families have lost loved ones, jobs, homes, and reliable transportation.

Much attention has been paid to Illinois’ enrollment losses during the pandemic and why almost 70,000 public school students left their districts. Less has been paid to students who stay but don’t attend school regularly — a pattern that can cause them to fall behind, miss learning, struggle to catch up, and possibly drop out of school. 

“When students don’t show up to school, it’s a sign that something isn’t working.”

The number of students who are chronically absent in Illinois spiked during the pandemic, and experts and truancy officers such as Glenn say it’s still a concern.

Statewide chronic absenteeism rose to 21.2% in 2021, up almost 5 percentage points from 2019, when it stood at 16.5%. Students are considered chronically absent when they miss 18 to 20 days of the school year — an average about two days a month — with or without a valid excuse for being absent.

Despite a push to fully reopen schools this fall, truancy officers and experts say the problem persists as families deal with a lack of transportation due to a school bus driver shortage and the number of students being quarantined after possible exposure to COVID is increasing.

“When students don’t show up to school, it’s a sign that something isn’t working,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of nonprofit Attendance Works. However, if schools intervene early enough, she said, they can get students back on track academically.

“We know that when kids show up to school more, they’re more likely to read on grade level in third grade,” said Chang. “They’re more likely to do well academically in middle school and they’re more likely to graduate from high school.”

The state board of education has taken notice of the problem. At its December meeting, the board approved a recommendation to increase spending by $12 million next year for regional education offices to help them hire more truancy officers as part of the state education department’s $9.7 billion budget proposal. That plan is heading to the governor and will be voted on by the general assembly.

Students of color, those experiencing homelessness, students with disabilities, and English learners are those most impacted by chronic absenteeism, according to the Illinois Board of Education 2021 state report card. 

According to that data, Black, Native, and Hispanic students had higher rates of chronic absenteeism than other racial and ethnic groups. Black students saw a significant increase from 30.9% in 2019 to 39% in 2021. Hispanic students went from 19.5% in 2019 to 24.8% in 2021. Native students rose from 23.6% in 2019 to 26.7% in 2021.

Lack of access to in-person learning last year could be one reason for the increase in chronic absenteeism, said Brenda Dixon, research and evaluation officer for the state board of education, during a press conference in late October.

“We know from national studies from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], that school districts serving primarily Black and Hispanic students provided the least access to in-person learning last year,” said Dixon. “We suspect that less access to in-person learning contributed to lower engagement among Black and Hispanic students.”

English learners, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families also recorded higher rates of chronic absenteeism last year compared to previous years. The rates for English learners increased from 17.2% in 2019 to 23.8% in 2021, while the rates for students with IEPs went from 26.3% in 2019 to 30% in 2021. Chronically absent students from low-income households rose from 25.4% in 2019 to 31.7% in 2021.

Students struggled before and during school closures

For students with disabilities, those from low-income families or experiencing homelessness, and English learners, schools were difficult to navigate before the coronavirus pandemic. It was even harder for marginalized students once schools closed and everything went remote. 

Joshua Axelsen, coordinator of alternative programs at Kane County Regional office of education, said remote learning made it harder for students with disabilities to show up for classes because they did not have the support they needed. 

“There are students who may have physical disabilities or orthopedic impairments,” Axelsen said. “Working on a computer is tough. They need a caregiver. They need a one-on-one.”

Even prior to the pandemic, lack of transportation, child care, stable housing, health care, and mental health support often prevented students experiencing homelessness from going to school, said Alyssa Philips, education attorney at the nonprofit Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. 

“COVID has been challenging for everyone, but I think it’s been a heightened level of difficulty for those who don’t have a consistent place to stay,” said Philips. “Children are more exposed if they are in a shelter and not having that consistent access to Wi-Fi or technology when classes are remote.” 

This was the first year Chang, with Attendance Works, saw an increase in chronic absenteeism for English learners. She says schools need to be better equipped at connecting with families and parents who don’t speak English to ensure they are getting access to resources. 

“COVID has been challenging for everyone, but I think it’s been a heightened level of difficulty for those who don’t have a consistent place to stay.”

In addition to students with disabilities, English learners, and students who are experiencing homelessness, Chang said schools must look at students in transition grades such as preschool to kindergarten and ninth grade to 10th grade. Preschool and kindergarten lay a foundation for students to learn how to behave in a classroom, engage with their peers, be independent of parents, and prepare for academic classes. In ninth and 10th grade, students who miss their core classes are on track to drop out of school, according to Chang. 

How districts can help now

While each family’s situation is different, there are solutions school districts can implement early in the year to get students into classes. And, with the state receiving more than $7 billion in COVID relief funding, there is more flexibility in what school districts can do this year. 

First, experts say, districts must figure out how to reach out to families to determine why a student is chronically absent. 

Patricia Graczyk, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes that school districts should be using federal funds for mental health support for students, families, and staff. These supports could help students experiencing “re-entry anxiety,” a phrase born out of the pandemic, which refers to students who have been in remote learning for a long time and are transitioning back to in-person learning. Anxiety could be one red flag signaling that a student may miss school. 

Students who are chronically absent could also have other mental health issues, Graczyk said. “It’s estimated that about 50% to 80% of those students who have school refusal behaviors that are chronically absent also have serious mental health issues.”

Having an adequate number of school psychologists and social workers in school can provide extra support to students, says Graczyk. If schools are unable to increase staffing due to funding or shortages, she added, districts should look into partnerships with community mental health providers. 

Joliet Public School District 86, which had a chronic absentee rate of 21%, has ramped up its mental health support for students. 

The district placed a social worker and school counselor in every building and has increased funding for partnerships with agencies to provide mental health support to families, said Sunni McNeal, assistant superintendent of equity and student services.

In the first six weeks of the school year, the school district did social-emotional learning for six weeks to “re-acclimate our students to school, reestablish our relationships with teachers, and help students feel comfortable after the trauma of just being sheltered in place at home,” McNeal said.

Peoria Public School District 150 has used COVID relief funding to hire additional staff to make home visits, call parents, and offer incentives such as prizes and awards to decrease chronic absenteeism. The Central Illinois school district, which has over 12,000 students, saw a chronic absenteeism rate of 43% for the 2020-21 school year. 

Prior to the pandemic, Peoria created attendance teams — made up of principals, teachers, and social workers — at each of the district’s 25 schools. The teams look at attendance data reports each month to see how students are doing. 

“A lot of people forget about the attendance and work on a lot of other things,” said Peoria superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat. “But, if the children are not there, your efforts will not be as profound and significant as having everybody there.”

As school districts create new initiatives to bring students back into classrooms, parents also want districts to communicate when a child is considered truant or chronically absent. 

Lettie Hicks, whose younger daughter is currently a second grade student in East St. Louis school district 189, received a warning letter after her daughter missed five days of school last year.

Hicks was confused when she received the letter. Her school district remained remote last year and she was struggling to balance working from home and helping her daughter do school work online. 

At first, Hicks didn’t know how to work a Chromebook and grappled with getting her daughter’s log-in information to work. The district never followed up with her about the letter. 

As a parent facilitator with nonprofit organization Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), Hicks found out that other parents were also receiving truancy letters. Truancy is when a student misses school without a valid excuse; chronic absenteeism is when a student misses 18-20 days with or without an excuse. 

“The question that I had, and I still have, was how many days is a child allowed to be absent before extreme measures are taken place?” said Hicks. “Nobody answered that question.”

Hicks felt like there was a lot of information about how parents could be penalized if their child did not attend classes, but no information around expectations for attendance from the district. 

Predictions about attendance this year

Although school buildings have reopened this year, a number of variables could determine if chronic absenteeism will decrease: coronavirus cases are on the rise again, but school districts are committing to testing students regularly for the virus, virtual learning is available to students in quarantine, and students 5 and up are eligible for the vaccine. 

As of November, Joliet reported an attendance rate of 92.3%, while the chronic absenteeism rate was 11%. Peoria has reported an attendance rate of 90.2%, but does not have data on chronic absenteeism. 

While these districts are reporting high attendance rates, that can mask the issue of chronic absenteeism. Even though the statewide attendance rate was 92.5% during the 2020-21 school year and has hovered around 90% for the past five years, some students were missing a large number of days. 

Kari Glenn, truancy officer at Kane County Regional Office of Education, hopes schools will be able to get students back into classrooms because they missed out on learning, engaging with other students, and learning social norms in classrooms last school year. But she notes that it will take a lot of work to keep them there.  

“I have a couple of affluent districts and I have low-income districts. All of them have seen loss in learning from these students and significant attendance loss,” said Glenn. “It’s going to take time to get us back to where we were.”

This story was produced as part of Samantha Smylie’s participation in the Education Writers Association’s New to the Beat program.