Jane Groff, left, and Tamara Huff of the Kansas Parent Information Resource Center said the increase of chronically absent students in Kansas schools from 13.7% to 24.5% in five years was cause for concern. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The number of K-12 students in Kansas classified as chronically absent from school surged to 24.5% during the 2021-2022 academic year as educators emerged from the darkest depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The portion of Kansas students who missed more than 10% of school days — excused or unexcused — had ballooned from 13.7% in 2017-2018 to 24.5% last year. The danger in terms of student learning, education officials and consultants said, was the compounding influence of absences. A student missing one or two days each month starting in kindergarten could end up skipping the equivalent of one year of school by 12th grade.
“Across the board there’s been a significant jump in the chronic absentee rate,” said Robyn Kelso, an education program analyst with Kansas Department of Education. “Remember the last two years. It’s been a pretty significant, unprecedented time for schooling.”
The definition of an absence was left to local school districts in Kansas, but federal guidelines urge districts to count as present a student in school more than half the day.
Jim McNiece, a Kansas State Board of Education member from Wichita, said Tuesday that he found during 39 years as a teacher, coach and principal in Kansas public and private schools that students with profound attendance issues often were grappling with a set of unique challenges.
“I have a wealth of experience chasing kids who didn’t come to school,” he said. “If we can change attendance, we can change their life.”
Betty Arnold, another state Board of Education member from Wichita, said she was concerned about accuracy of district reporting on absent students.
“How do we address the problem so it reflects accurate information? So, when we look at possible solutions, we’re actually dealing with something real and not imagined. If we’re not dealing with accurate data, then that’s problematic,” Arnold said.
Kelso said the rising absentee rate would leave a broader imprint on students, schools and districts across Kansas.
“For the student, it’s obviously missed instruction, missed relationships, missed social interactions we value so highly as students,” she said. “The lost opportunity for instruction is going to lead to decreased achievement in most instances.”
Kelso said the uptick in chronic absenteeism meant teachers had to devote more time to sorting out assignments for students who needed to catch up. It could take a toll on other students as teachers accommodated individuals who missed previous instruction, she said.
Jane Groff, executive director of Kansas Parent Information Resource Center, said the trend among Kansas students missing significant amounts of school had placed districts on alert.
“Districts and schools are looking at this issue much more. I’ve done this 15 years and attendance and chronic absenteeism has never risen to the top like it has now,” she said.
She said lack of transportation, depression and trauma were barriers to regular attendance in school. Issues with student engagement and past negative school experiences, including bullying, were factors. Another obstacle were the misperceptions among parents and caregivers that excused absences weren’t a detriment to a student or that missing school only mattered to older students, she said.
Groff said educators had the best chance of amending attendance habits if they worked to build positive relationships with students and families.
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