More than 6.5 million students nationwide were chronically absent (missed 10 percent or more of school days) in the 2013-14 academic year, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
These chronically absent students included 3 million high school students (18 percent) and 3.5 million elementary school students (11 percent). Chronic absenteeism is a proven early warning sign of academic risk and school dropout.
Under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to include chronic absenteeism on their state report cards. As a result, it is important to provide states and districts with guidance on how to implement effective solutions. That is why Healthy Schools Campaign has released a toolkit to assist school districts in understanding their student health needs, sharing best practices to address the most prevalent student health conditions and on how to build partnerships with others to support students, families and communities.
Supporting states and districts is so important because the connection between student health and chronic absenteeism is clear: Both chronic and acute health conditions can prevent students from attending school. Research indicates that common health conditions resulting in missed school include asthma, influenza, diabetes, obesity and related illness, seizure disorders, mental health and anxiety and vision problems.
While health-related chronic absenteeism can affect students of any background, its most devastating impact is felt by students who face health disparities, poverty and other challenges in attaining school success. “We view chronic absenteeism as an issue of health inequity, particularly among underserved communities and communities of color,” says Rochelle Davis, President + CEO of Healthy Schools Campaign. “It is our goal to address the health issues that plague many lower income schools across the country.”
Research shows that these are the same students who benefit most from being in school. This impact is driven by two related factors: higher rates of health-related chronic absence and a more profound impact of that absence. Students who face disproportionate rates of illness or other factors known to cause chronic absence (such as a lack of transportation) often also lack resources to make up for missed instruction and the other missed benefits of being in school, such as access to nutrition programs and services.
In many cases, these same students attend schools that lack resources to provide the health-promoting conditions shown to support attendance and lifelong wellness. Students in low-income schools, for example, are less likely to have recess and high-quality physical education than students in higher-income schools. In addition, schools serving low-income communities are more likely to have no school nurse or to have higher ratios of students to nurses than schools serving higher-income communities.
Ensuring that all students—regardless of race or socioeconomic status—have access to resources that allow them to be in school and ready to learn is essential to addressing chronic absenteeism. This can only be achieved through strong partnerships and implementation of best practices like the ones we have outlined in our toolkit.