Samohi Abesenteeism
Absent: Absences spiked during the pandemic but Santa Monica schools are returning to pre-pandemic levels. SMDP Graphic


As a new school year gets underway in California, districts are desperately trying to lure thousands of missing, tardy and truant students back to the classroom

As a new school year gets underway in California, districts are desperately trying to lure thousands of missing, tardy and truant students back to the classroom in what many view as a pivotal moment for education in California as it fights absenteeism.

In 2021-22, 30% of students in California’s public schools were chronically absent, an all-time high and more than three times the pre-pandemic rate. Advocates fear that unless schools can reverse the trend, so many students will fall behind that they may never catch up.

“This is a crisis, and it’s not going to change until we do everything we can to get kids back in school 100%,” said Heather Hough, a Stanford professor and director of Policy Analysis for California Education. “What we all fear is that this will become the new normal.… It is hard to overstate the importance of this issue, and it is absolutely a pivotal moment.”

Before the pandemic, about 10% of students in California’s public schools missed at least 10% (or 18 days) in a school year, which the state defines as chronically absent. But COVID-related school closures, remote learning and quarantines have created a new habit for millions of families: optional, not mandatory, daily school attendance.

Even though California law requires all children ages 6 through 18 to attend school every day, nearly 2 million students were chronically absent in 2021-22, the most recent year data is available. Nearly every group of students had high rates of absenteeism, but the highest rates were among kindergartners. Kindergartners who are Black, Pacific Islander or have disabilities all had rates of 50% or higher.

Students’ specific reasons for missing school are varied. Lack of transportation is among the most common reasons, but sometimes students have to look after younger siblings or go to work. In some cases, students stay home because they’re being bullied or don’t like their teachers. After COVID, some parents have become overly cautious about sending their children to school with minor ailments.

Santa Monica’s absentee figures mirror the national trend. In 2018/19 (pre-pandemic) the district reported a chronic absenteeism rate of 9.6 percent. No data was available for the first pandemic year of 2019/20 but the rate dropped to 4.9 percent for 2020/21. However it spiked to 23.5 percent for 2021/22 representing about 2,189 of the district’s 9,323 students.

SMMUSD Community & Public Relations Officer Gail Pinsker said the 2021/22 year was marked by a hybrid set of Covid protocols that caused significant disruptions to regular classes. She said students were often forced to stay home due to positive tests in a classroom and the testing/quarantine precautions were challenging.

According to Pinsker, preliminary analysis of the most recent school year (2022/23) indicates the local absenteeism rates are returning to the pre-Covid range of about 10%.

Absenteeism has myriad negative impacts. For students, they’re more likely to fall behind academically, drop out and not graduate. For schools, lower attendance means less revenue from the state, which bases its funding on how many students show up every day. For teachers, poor attendance means half–empty classrooms, with some students who are weeks or months behind their peers.

There are legal implications, as well. In extreme cases, local district attorneys can get involved, citing and fining parents or students who persistently flout the mandatory attendance law.

Local officials said September is actually Attendance Awareness Month in SMMUSD and the district is working to keep parents aware of the importance of sending kids to school.

“‘Showing up’ is a valuable life habit – it represents more than attendance, it’s an attitude – it’s showing up, being present, and being engaged,” said SMMUSD Superintendent Antonio Shelton in a letter to parents. “Strong attendance is the foundation for academic success, personal growth, and the building of a robust school community.”

The district’s tips for parents include setting an example for students, sticking to a routine, communicating about challenges and providing positive reinforcement.

“Strong family-school relationships are key to student success. With your involvement, we will successfully prepare, educate, and inspire every student,” said Shelton in his letter to parents. “Together, let’s celebrate our students’ potential and ensure that Attendance Awareness Month sets a positive tone for the entire school year ahead.”

Alarmed at the extent of the crisis, the Legislature is also intervening. The Assembly recently asked Hough’s organization, Policy Analysis for California Education, to study the issue and come up with recommendations.

The findings could lead to legislation that would address the issue directly. A few possibilities include increased accountability at the local level, such as offering districts more incentives to get students back in class; better data collection; and broader efforts to make school a more attractive place for students to be.

In response to the pandemic, the state has already invested billions in initiatives aimed at boosting student engagement, including:

It’s unclear how much impact these programs have had so far, or if they’ll survive once COVID relief funding expires or the state budget tightens. But in any case, the state needs to do more, said Assembly Budget Chair Phil Ting, a Democrat representing San Francisco.

“It’s worrisome that kids are still staying home from school in record numbers,” Ting said. “Our investments in universal school meals, after-school programs and home-to-school transportation have not been enough to bring students back.”

Ting said he’s hopeful that studying the issue will lead to solutions.

“When children don’t regularly attend class, they fall behind on their lessons, and they are more likely to drop out – some as early as kindergarten. The implications of a less-educated generation are great,” he said. “We need to understand why attendance is below pre-COVID levels, so that we can better direct state resources and education leaders where they’ll be most effective in re-engaging students.”

Stemming absenteeism ultimately may be up to individual schools and staff, said Hedy Chang, executive director of the advocacy group Attendance Works.

For starters, health standards need to change, she said. Schools should promote better preventative care for students, but also convince parents that COVID is no longer a public health emergency and children should not miss school “for every sniffle or tummy ache.”

But more importantly, school staff must work directly with families to address the specific reasons for absenteeism, taking into account language and cultural barriers, and build strong personal relationships with parents and students, she said.

“We need to create those deep connections, so every child knows that there’s an adult waiting with open arms to welcome them to school,” Chang said. “That needs to be the new normal.”

SMDP Editor Matthew Hall contributed to this report. This article was originally published by CalMatters.

Carolyn Jones, Special to the Daily Press

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...