Laura Rodriguez Elementary School in Logan Heights on March 10, 2023.
Laura Rodriguez Elementary School in Logan Heights on March 10, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Chronic absenteeism – when a kid misses 10 percent of school days – has exploded since the pandemic, rocketing up the ever-growing list of educational crises.  

The concern can be summed up simply: if kids aren’t in school, they can’t learn. But it also may indicate a lack of connection with schools that’s detrimental to learning even when they are at school, and since districts are funded in part based on their average daily attendance, increased absences also affect their bottom line. 

Let’s rewind the clock: Before the pandemic, San Diego County’s Office of Education was already concerned about chronic absenteeism.  

“Those were kind of the rosy days when the countywide chronic absenteeism rate was about 10 percent,” said Todd Langager, the county office’s director of implementation, improvement, and impact. 

That’s why in 2019 the county office launched the Improving Chronic Absenteeism Network that Langager leads, which partnered with schools across the county to drive down the number of kids missing school. 

The network has focused on evidence-based practices, he said, like employing coaches to help schools focus on building an effective attendance team and using data to identify kids who may be at risk of falling into chronic absenteeism.  

“Once we know who those kids are, we ask, ‘What are the reasons why those students may be missing school? And how do we apply an intervention that makes sense – whether it’s around relationship building with the community or communicating to parents and dispelling some misconceptions that may exist about attendance,” he said. 

The network also seeks non-punitive approaches to avoid alienating students through punishment. One of the key strategies the network has employed is “nudge letters,” notices sent to parents of students already chronically absent or those approaching the chronic absenteeism threshold. Research has found the letters have promising results. They show parents the number of absences their children have had compared to other students and provide information on the negative effects of absences. 

Cue the “Jaws” theme music: Just as the network was powering up, the pandemic hit.

“The world kind of blew up with the pandemic, and schools’ chronic absenteeism rate largely tripled,” Langager said. 

Chronic absenteeism seemed to still be driven by similar factors: student connection and engagement, parental misconceptions about the harm absences can cause, transportation issues and the demotivation a student can feel when they come back to class and find they’re significantly behind.  

But a couple of new wrinkles formed, like increased health concerns that led to parents keeping their kids home and the difficulty of moving back into in-person schooling. Some students have even transitioned from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school over the pandemic and now find themselves at a school where they lack connections with staff or their peers. 

“It is largely the same factors as before the pandemic, those factors just got unbelievably heightened and exacerbated,” Langager said.  

All of that made it even more vital that interventions occur quickly and effectively, he said. 

Drumroll, please: Last month, the network released results from the last year and found that 17 of the 18 schools it worked with saw a reduction in chronic absenteeism, with an average reduction of 9 percent. He stressed that no one is jumping up and down at the results. After all, at many schools one out of every three students is still chronically absent. Still, he said the network is proud of the progress and feels it’s in large part due to the tactics it focused on.    

It found the nudge letters especially effective. Before the first letter was sent, 68 percent of students had already missed at least 10 percent of school days. Those students then received two subsequent nudge letters – one in October and one in February – and the percentage of chronically absent students dropped from 68 to 39 percent, with noticeable decreases directly after each letter was sent.  

There’s still much work to do, Langager said, and the network plans to adjust its tactics. One evolution is to send nudge letters more than twice a year. In a recent conversation, a researcher from Harvard suggested sending them as many as six to eight times a year. 

“It really only sticks in people’s memory for about four to six weeks. And then you’ve kind of forgotten, like, ‘Hey, did Todd miss a day this past month? I can’t remember,’” Langager said. 

While he said the network is confident interventions like nudge letters work, adapting them to be effective in different schools and districts can be a challenge. Ultimately, Langager said, they’re just working to advise schools and help them figure out the best ways to implement interventions. 

“It’s all about testing and testing and trying again,” Langager said.  

What We’re Writing 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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