A kindergarten student listens to herself read during a class assignment at Spreckels Elementary school in University City on April 24, 2023.
A kindergarten student reads during a class assignment at Spreckels Elementary School on April 24, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

As schools embark on a new year, one question is at the forefront of my mind: Will kids show up consistently? If you’ve read any of my coverage in the past year, you know that chronic absenteeism – when a child misses at least 10 percent of days in a school year – has been stressing me out. 

Above all other performance metrics, many of which are quite bleak, the post-pandemic explosion of chronic absenteeism is the most worrying development. This is because regardless of what sorts of classroom interventions schools implement to right the test score ship, they won’t be effective if kids aren’t in class in the first place

Education officials haven’t been blind to the rise in chronic absenteeism, especially because it’s sort of an educational double whammy. Missing school not only affects kids’ ability to learn, but because school funding is based in part on the average daily attendance of students, it also affects districts’ bottom line. 

So, districts across the region and the country have tried to implement strategies to get kids back in classrooms. San Diego Unified has hired what it calls family services assistants for each of its high school clusters. They’ll work with families to address barriers to consistent attendance and conduct home visits. Oceanside Unified sent staff to students’ homes to distribute backpacks full of supplies before the first day of school. And the San Diego County Office of Education created a network meant to help schools integrate strategies like nudge letters into their approach to combatting chronic absenteeism. 

The county office has seen some success, but we won’t know how effective many of these strategies have been until new data on chronic absenteeism is released. We expect that to happen in the coming weeks. 

‘When Kids Get Behind … They Stay Behind’

If chronic absenteeism is a crisis, the fact that rates are at their highest in lower grades is whatever is one step above a crisis. After all, kids are building much of the knowledge base they will go on to use throughout the rest of their academic careers in these early years, so falling behind is a significant cause for concern. 

As Deborah Stipek, a professor emerita at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education whose work focuses on early childhood and elementary education, told me back in March, “For the most part, when kids get behind in those early years, they stay behind. And if anything, they get more behind.” 

And in recent years, to the alarm of some, kindergarten has gotten more academically rigorous, meaning there’s even more room to fall behind.  

Kindergarteners in particular have the highest rates of chronic absenteeism. At San Diego Unified, a startling 47 percent of kindergartners were chronically absent in the 2021 – 2022 school year. That’s a full 14 percentage points higher than the district’s overall average. It’s also higher than the kindergarten chronic absenteeism rate of both the county and the state. 

Like with many educational metrics, and chronic absenteeism overall, the pain wasn’t spread equally. Latino kindergartners, for example, had a shocking 62 percent rate of chronic absenteeism, more than two times higher than White children. 

Among kindergartners who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, the overall chronic absenteeism rate increases to 60 percent. That’s especially concerning, because research shows that children living in poverty tend to experience more learning loss tied to chronic absenteeism than children from more affluent families.    

All families’ stories are different, and so are the reasons their children are chronically absent. But researchers have told me there may be some throughlines.  

  • Chronic absenteeism has always been highest in kindergarten, which may suggest parents view the grade as nonessential. Kindergarten is more academically rigorous now than it once was, but it still isn’t mandatory in California, which may exacerbate the perception that missing class is no biggie. 
  • At the kindergarten age, kids can’t get themselves to school on their own. So, if a family is struggling with transportation issues, for example, kids are more likely to stay home than walk to school or take a bus. 
  • Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, said that whether it’s because they’ve gotten into the routine of attending school, or because they’ve built up their immune system, attending preschool is one of the best predictors of kindergarten attendance. But unfortunately, the pandemic shut many families out of preschool. 

Ultimately, as a recent Edsource panel on the topic stressed, communicating to families just how vital it is to attend kindergarten is a key to addressing chronic absenteeism, and learning loss long term. Not only does this instill the routine of consistent school attendance in kids early, it also can prevent them from falling behind.  

But regardless, as the Covid generation – who attended lower grades virtually and tried to learn to read through a computer screen – matriculates into higher grades, it’s likely we will see the impacts of learning loss and chronic absenteeism compound – unless schools can figure out some effective strategies to catch them up. 

“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.   

What We’re Writing 

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

Join the Conversation


  1. Would be interesting to do some follow up on the oceanside effort, perhaps in a month or two, to see if it improved attendence in the cohort of kids who were involved.

    Is it a best practice for other districts to follow, or something that sounds like it should work but doesn’t?

  2. No, the “pandemic” didn’t shut families out of pre-school, the teachers union did.

Leave a comment
We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.