Preventing chronic absenteeism demands case by case attention

In recent years, the amount of students that are absent from school each day is as high as it’s ever been, in a new plague upon the education system known as chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism is used to describe behavior in which students are simply absent from school way more often than they should be. There is no need to beat around the bush with why this is happening. The answer is covid. 

When school first got out for spring break of 2020, nobody truly expected it to last all the way until the start of the next school year. The quarantine was not a time period that many people look back fondly at. Yet it still appealed to some. The idea of isolation, staying at home the majority of the day and just not really having anything to do was something that the student population could really enjoy. So sleeping in late, having nowhere to be and nothing to do became a normalcy, so naturally when school started back up, attendance was going to be pretty rocky. Going from having three months off of school, leading directly into summer break, made going back into the routine of school that much harder. 

It took time, but gradually students readjusted to going to school, but it was evident that others didn’t. Covid had set into motion an event that would be the root cause of many students becoming chronically absent. So what does that mean? 

Being considered chronically absent refers to the habit of missing school without good reason. Students are considered chronically absent by the state if they miss 10 percent of school days or more. In the normal school year, there are 180 days. Missing 18 days doesn’t seem to be all that horrible in the grand scheme of things, and yet it has a tremendous impact on one’s academic performance. School doesn’t stop just because you’re not there, and catching up on 18 days of lessons in seven classes is very difficult and can feel overwhelming. It’s this overwhelming feeling, and the stress that accompanies it, which might cause students to miss even more school as a way to take a break. 

Students who are chronically absent were always an issue for schools before covid, but the pandemic multiplied the problem, giving teenagers a taste of what it would be like to just not have school, and some really enjoyed that—enough so that skipping school just because they didn’t feel like going became much more common. In the 2021-2022 school year, two years past covid, 29.7 percent of students nationwide were declared as chronically absent according to federal data collected at the end of that year. That is almost 14.7 million students, double the amount of chronically absent students in 2019, which was 15 percent, according to federal data from that year. 

And the 29.7 percent number isn’t really decreasing all that much. As of the end of 2023, schools are reporting that the number of chronically absent students is estimated to be at 26 percent. 

So why do the numbers stay that high? Part of the reason is that it is simply a difficult rule to enforce. 

Cedar Falls High School, unlike many other high schools, has maintained a very stable 94 percent of students aren’t considered chronically absent, leaving about 1 in 20 (6 percent) of students considered chronically absent. 

The student handbook states the steps to accountability for absences, the first of which is detention, which then turns into a suspension from school. If a student has 12 or more absences from a class, then they lose the credit for that class. If it is a required class, then they will need to take it again next year. If the number of courses a student is earning credits in drops below five, then they will no longer be enrolled until the next semester. In accordance with Iowa law, students who are no longer enrolled while under the age of 18 will have their licenses revoked by the department of transportation. Finally, if absences continue to pile up and reach 20 in one semester, then it is the school’s responsibility to refer the student to the county attorney so that they may determine prosecution. 

Skipping out on school is considered truancy. If a student commits truancy, the principal is supposed to investigate the cause of the truancy. If a cause cannot be determined, then the student is referred to the county attorney. 

If a student is truant, it is considered illegal by Iowa law, not just for the student but also the parents. It is a parent or guardian’s responsibility to ensure that children attend school on a regular basis. It is also a parent’s responsibility to provide evidence of a student being mentally or physically unable to attend school for it to be considered an excused absence. Because of this, students who are reported truants may be reported to law enforcement. 

These are some hefty punishments for students who display chronic absence, but are they really enforced? The answer is a bit situational. According to Jason Wedgbury, the principal at Cedar Falls High School, the response to absentees is tricky. Administration is put into a tough position. Students who have more excused absences are handled based on whether or not they get their work done. As long as the student is able to keep up with a class despite having excused absences, then they will not receive an array of detentions. Students with unexcused absences, considered to be truancies, are taken more harshly. 

Regardless of if absences are excused or not, parents will receive a letter at 12 absences, then 16, and another one at 21 absences. After 21 absences, this is when the county attorney does get involved. 

However the country attorney’s involvement is a rare occurrence. According to Associate Principal Rafael Bentitez, the county attorney has only acted once this year on a student’s absence. This is because in order for legal prosecution to be an option, the students’ attendance at school must be considered mandatory attendance, which is something that really only applies to sophomores because they are under age 16. For juniors and seniors, the maximum punishment that is taken is simply not being considered enrolled for the semester. 

According to Wedgbury, this is also when parents begin to get in trouble. He also said compared to other schools in the state of Cedar Falls’ size, absenteeism is not having as big of an effect at this school, and that attendance rates here are doing better than most. Cedar Falls High School boasts a 94 percent attendance rate, while other schools of the same size, such as Ames, have an absenteeism rate of 64 percent. 

Despite this, however, absenteeism is still a concern, and action is still levied against truants. Students who miss too much school are eventually dropped from courses and eventually are just not considered attending students for the semester. This is the main consequence for students considered truants, since the county attorney can only get involved when the truant student begins the school year under the age of 16. 

This is what brings absenteeism to light as such a huge issue. Graduating high school is a crucial point in everybody’s life. It is the main stepping stone toward deciding what it is you want to do, since having a high school education is a very big influence on jobs and colleges alike. Missing out on an entire semester’s worth of credit can have a large and detrimental impact, and yet it just doesn’t appear to have as large of an effect on the mental state of students, who tend to behave in a more nonchalant manner towards the entire situation. A high school education is one of the most important aspects of many students’ immediate future, and absenteeism puts that in jeopardy.

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