Henry Cole, 5 years old, UTK student, walks to Stephen C. Foster Elementary School with his mother on Jan. 30, 2023.
Henry Cole, 5, walks to Stephen C. Foster Elementary School with his mother on Jan. 30, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

The pandemic led to an explosion of chronic absenteeism locally and across the country. But in the same way that not all communities were equally impacted, chronic absenteeism in some grades rose to even more alarming levels than others.  

Chronic absenteeism at San Diego Unified schools has tripled from pre-pandemic levels in nearly every grouping of grades from kindergarten through fifth grade. The district’s rate is now higher than the state and the county’s average in every set of grade levels except high school. 

Nearly half of all kindergarteners, and nearly 40 percent of children in grades 1-3 are now chronically absent, both of which exceed the district’s 33 percent average. These high levels of chronic absenteeism in early grades are particularly acute for students of color, with 56 percent of Latino students and 47 percent of Black students chronically absent from kindergarten to third grade. 

“We should all be deeply concerned,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, an organization focused on fighting educational inequities by addressing chronic absence. 

Click here to view chronic absences from 2021-2022 in a new tab.

Deborah Stipek, a professor emerita at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, whose work focuses on early childhood and elementary education, said it’s difficult to tell whether this increase will persist in later grades or if it’s just a post-pandemic blip. 

“Either way, it’s bad for kids,” she said. “This level of chronic absenteeism is huge.” 

Children build the knowledge base needed to succeed later in their educational careers during those early years. Falling behind then makes it more difficult to catch up. Not being able to read by third grade, for example, is a powerful predictor of a student’s future success in school and beyond.  

“For the most part, when kids get behind in those early years, they stay behind. And if anything, they get more behind,” Stipek said. 

Chronic absenteeism – missing 10 percent or more school days in a year – is closely tied to student performance, especially for children living in poverty who tend to experience more learning loss tied to chronic absenteeism than children from more affluent families.  

“When these kindergarteners get to high school, if we haven’t figured out a way to make a difference, we’re in deep trouble,” Chang said. 

The first experience in school is also critical to building the habits and routines of a successful student, Chang said.  

“It helps to forge what the relationship to school is. It helps to (determine whether) kids like the learning experience. Are they excited? Do they experience the joy of learning? Are they developing the routine of attendance that will help them … in school and then later on when they get a job?” Chang said. 

Despite the dramatic increase, the elevated level of chronic absenteeism in kindergarten is not a huge surprise, said Robert Balfanz, a professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, who studies chronic absenteeism. Historically, chronic absenteeism has been at its highest in kindergarten. 

Balfanz said the reasons children miss school during those grades are often tied to family issues like transportation rather than kids deciding not to go to school, as can happen with high schoolers, or more mundane reasons. 

“That is still when you could get a stomachache as a first or second grader or kindergartener and (stay home,)” Balfanz said. He thinks that could simply be happening more, but also that it’s possible kids now moving into kindergarten didn’t attend the previous grade. “Maybe that’s increased the resistance from kids to be there every day,” Balfanz said. 

Stipek said that since kindergarten isn’t required by the state, some parents may think of it as “extra.” 

“I do think not all families realize how important those early years are, and what the consequences of missing school are,” Stipek said. 

District spokeswoman Maureen Magee wrote in an email that the district is “actively working with schools to share resources with parents and guardians about the importance of consistent school attendance.” 

But San Diego Unified’s chronic absenteeism rates have also bucked a long-standing trend. In the past, rates of chronic absenteeism peaked in kindergarten and declined through elementary school before ticking up slightly in middle and high school, said Balfanz. Last year, chronic absenteeism at San Diego Unified dropped in every consecutive grouping of grades, which stands at odds with both county and state data.  

Click here to view chronic absences from 2018-2019 in a new tab.

“The pandemic has really scrambled things,” Balfanz said. 

Though the rates of chronic absenteeism still more than doubled in the grade groupings 7-8 and 9-12, they were the only two in which the level of chronic absenteeism was below the district average. High school was the only level where chronic absenteeism in the district was lower than the county and the state. 

Prior to the pandemic, there was an around 6 percentage point difference in the highest and lowest rates of chronic absenteeism by grade grouping. There’s now a whopping 20 percentage point difference between kindergarten and high school. 

But high school data may not be telling the full story, said Chang. In San Diego Unified, like in many districts across the state, students are counted as having attended school if they show up for at least one period. In many other states, students must show up to at least half the day’s classes to be counted as attending, Chang said. While for other grades attending at least one class is likely to mean they attended all classes, by high school, students may be more mobile or motivated to ditch. 

That attendance policy hasn’t changed since the Covid pandemic, so it doesn’t seem to have played a role in the change to the longstanding pattern of absenteeism, but Chang said it could still complicate the picture we get. 

“Our data is possibly an underestimate of the crisis facing our high school kids, which is pretty sobering,” Chang said. 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at jakob@vosd.org and followed...

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1 Comment

  1. There are two missing factors, not even discussed in this article. The issue of increased illness due to the fact our kids were isolated for so long that the younger grades never got a chance to build immunity. Why did the author totally disregard the fact that through the winter months Rady’s had to convert gift shops into waiting rooms and our children have been getting sick non-stop since returning to school. Not to mention there has been little to no mental health strategies in place even though there is incessant barrage on our children to perform as if there has been no pandemic. I think that there is a disconnect from those interviewed in this article and what is really going on for students.

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