Chronic absenteeism increases in Texas schools after pandemic

At Tornillo PreK-8 School, youthful hall monitors sporting vivid yellow vests welcome their peers each morning as part of an initiative aimed at promoting daily attendance.

As the pupils make their way to their classes, the teachers promptly log the absences starting at 7:30 a.m., despite the official attendance taking place at 10 a.m.

Following this, there is a rapid response from the staff to contact parents and locate the missing students.

“Staff members reach out to parents to inquire about the students’ arrival,” stated Rosy Vega-Barrio, Superintendent of Tornillo Independent School District. “If there’s no immediate response, an officer is dispatched to investigate the situation.”

A member of the “Coyote Hall Patrol” eagerly anticipates the arrival of students at Tornillo ISD’s PreK-8th campus. Cassandra Soto, a staff member, established the successful Hall Patrol program to motivate students with high instances of absences and tardiness to arrive early. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Once a student begins accumulating absences, school administrators like Principal Myrna Lopez-Patty of Tornillo PreK-8 set up meetings with parents to discuss Texas attendance laws, which mandate school districts to initiate legal proceedings after three unexcused absences.

“You’re meeting with me as a preventative measure because we don’t want to resort to filing for court action,” Lopez-Patty told Brenda Guillen and her son Nathan during one of these sessions in March.

Guillen admitted she was unaware that her son could jeopardize his credit standing by missing more than 10% of his classes for the year. Ultimately, she expressed relief that they addressed the issue before Nathan’s attendance became a larger concern.

Myrna Lopez-Patty, the principal of Tornillo ISD’s PreK-8th campus, elucidates the state regulations on school attendance during a personal meeting with a student’s mother concerning accumulated tardiness and absences. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“I was confident about his grades. I thought he was excelling, but I overlooked the importance of being punctual and present in school,” Guillen shared with El Paso Matters.

Vega-Barrio disclosed that these initiatives enabled the district to be the only one in El Paso County to reduce its chronic absenteeism rate since students returned to school following the pandemic, though the rate still remains higher than pre-pandemic levels.

The 2018-19 academic year marked the final year before the pandemic disruptions. Schools nationwide closed in March 2020, and most remained shut for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. In El Paso, many classes stayed closed in fall 2020 and resumed in early 2021.

Throughout Texas, the percentage of chronically absent students, defined as those missing at least 10% of class time (approximately 18 days a year), surged from 11% in 2018-19 to 15% in 2019-20. This figure rose to 26% in the 2021-22 school year, as per the latest Federal Report Cards data released by the Texas Education Agency.

Globally, chronic absenteeism almost doubled from 15% in 2018-19 to 28% in 2021-22, according to a report from Stanford University education professor Thomas Dee, in collaboration with the Associated Press.

El Paso County witnessed a similar trend, with chronic absenteeism rates in school districts escalating from 11% to 26% on average over the three-year period.

Tornillo ISD, a rural district on the eastern county fringes with under 900 students, emerged as an exception. The district observed its chronic absenteeism rate drop from 10% in 2018-19 to 2% in 2019-20, but then surged to 22% in the 2020-21 academic year. The rate reduced to 14% in the 2021-22 school year – the lowest in the county that year, yet higher than pre-pandemic levels.

During that period, the El Paso Independent School District recorded a 36% chronic absenteeism rate – the highest in the county. The Socorro Independent School District had a 28% rate, while the Ysleta Independent School District reported a 25% rate.

Outside the city boundaries, the San Elizario Independent School District had a 35% student chronic absenteeism rate, with 32% in the Fabens Independent School District, 28% in the Clint Independent School District, and 20% in the Canutillo Independent School District. The Anthony Independent School District maintained its 25% chronic absenteeism rate between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years.

Texas schools must track chronically absent students, although most do not analyze the data at the district level and rely on TEA’s annual reports.

While most El Paso schools don’t monitor overall chronic absenteeism rates, some educational leaders noted that average daily attendance has improved since the 2021-22 school year but remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Now, experts voice concerns that the rise in absenteeism could adversely impact students who missed out on the benefits of daily school attendance, such as counseling, social interactions, and participation in extracurricular activities.

Joshua Childs, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas in Austin.

“The earlier students establish consistent attendance at school, the higher the likelihood of graduating and pursuing postsecondary success,” mentioned Joshua Childs, an education professor at the University of Texas in Austin, to El Paso Matters. “It provides structure and organization, where they can have meals, interact with caring adults, and engage with peers. For many children, this is a crucial part of their daily routine.”

Research indicates that chronically absent students tend to perform poorly academically and face a higher risk of dropping out.

One study in Chicago revealed that students who were chronically absent in pre-kinder, kindergarten, and first grade were less likely to read at grade level by the end of second grade.

Chronic absenteeism in sixth grade predicts high school dropout, and students who missed school frequently between eighth and 12th grade were seven times more likely to drop out, as per a 2017 TEA report.

What is chronic absenteeism and what causes it?

Texas deems students chronically absent if they miss at least 10% (18 days) of the school year, irrespective of the reason for the absence.

Since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 to replace the No Child Left Behind Act, states must report and monitor chronic absenteeism to receive Title I funding. Before this law, Texas only tracked average daily attendance, making it challenging to identify specific students with significant absences.

“ESSA allows us to track the frequency and extent of student absences,” stated Childs regarding the benefits of the legislation.

Experts and educators assert that students with prolonged absences encounter barriers that hinder their daily school attendance, such as transportation issues, health concerns, and personal challenges affecting their family’s routine.

Jeannie Meza-Chavez, Superintendent of San Elizario ISD, cited instances where students missed several days of school after losing a parent or family member, and in another scenario, a family’s home burned down, potentially leading to chronic absenteeism due to homelessness.

Students arriving at Tornillo ISD’s PreK-8th campus on Feb. 26. Tornillo boasts one of the best attendance records in the El Paso region. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Data suggests that economically disadvantaged students and those with disabilities face additional hurdles, impeding their regular school attendance. In Texas, one-third of economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities were chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year.

“Numerous factors contribute to chronic absenteeism,” remarked Meza-Chavez when addressing the underlying causes.

Given the variety of reasons for school absences, educators and researchers must delve into the root causes of student absenteeism and devise strategies to support them.

School administrators affirm that many districts already work to address obstacles preventing students from attending school. Social workers connect families with external resources, while others proactively assist families in various ways.

At Tornillo ISD, school officials have arranged transportation for students who cannot access regular bus services, aiming to ease attendance challenges for such students.

In San Elizario, counselors collaborated with a family who lost their home to ensure they had shelter and essential supplies for the children to attend school, Meza-Chavez shared.

Why did chronic absenteeism increase?

While chronic absenteeism rates fluctuated among school districts, a common trend emerged. Absenteeism declined slightly when schools initially closed during the 2019-20 academic year, likely due to the exemption from attendance reporting in the final weeks, according to Diana Mooy, Director of Student Services at Ysleta ISD.

Diana Yadira Mooy, Director of Student Services at Ysleta Independent School District.

Chronic absenteeism experienced a slight increase during the 2020-21 school year when Texas schools operated under a hybrid model, blending online and in-person classes. Mooy noted that Ysleta ISD’s rise in chronic absenteeism was mitigated due to increased flexibility in attendance tracking provided by the state for virtual classes.

“Previously, we took attendance in second period, where students present in class were marked so, and those absent were noted. In (2021-22), we had the flexibility to delay attendance-taking, providing more time and opportunities to count students present,” Mooy explained.

Subsequently, chronic absenteeism surged during the 2021-22 school year when all students were mandated to return for in-person learning.

Some school officials interviewed by El Paso Matters reported parents keeping their children home more frequently due to sickness and concerns regarding mask-wearing and vaccination policies.

Mark Mendoza, former truancy prevention director at EPISD, detected a shift in families’ attitude toward school attendance.

“Prior to the quarantine, students were chronically absent for various reasons, but there was a general acknowledgment of the importance of daily school attendance,” Mendoza commented. “However, the pandemic-related closure disrupted this viewpoint among both students and families.”

Mendoza proposed that EPISD’s status as a District of Innovation, exempting it from the 90% attendance law for credit, may contribute to higher chronic absenteeism rates.

Students engaging with a teacher at Reyes Elementary School. Photo taken on Nov. 29. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The District of Innovation designation, established under House Bill 1842 in the 2015 legislative session, grants school districts exemption from specific state regulations to foster innovation. Mendoza attributed attendance decline to the perception that students could excel academically without daily school attendance.

“Numerous individuals began to believe that good grades and learning could be achieved without attending school daily,” Mendoza observed.

EPISD did not provide a comment upon request.

What did Tornillo ISD do differently?

Tornillo ISD, encompassed by vast desert and farmland along the Rio Grande, faces challenges distinctive to its rural landscape, with families residing miles apart.

While most schools observed a rise in chronic absenteeism upon students’ return to in-person learning, the rural district witnessed an increase during remote learning. Limited broadband availability in the area led to numerous students being counted absent because they couldn’t connect to virtual classes.

“The majority of our students lacked Wi-Fi access. Despite providing hotspots to each household, having multiple children online simultaneously caused disruptions. This issue significantly impacted us in (2020-21),” reflected Vega-Barrio.

Furthermore, the district accommodates students crossing the Tornillo-Guadalupe International Bridge from Mexico daily to reach school.

After school closures and travel restrictions during the pandemic, challenges arose in engaging these students in online learning, noted Vega-Barrio.

Many parents and guardians faced difficulties in aiding their children with schoolwork or troubleshooting technological glitches, reinforcing the necessity for their children’s return to school, she added.

Tornillo ISD introduced various initiatives and programs in 2021 to mitigate absenteeism, including hiring an attendance officer and educating parents on the significance of maintaining school attendance.

Texas truancy courts may mandate parents to undergo counseling, attend specialized classes, or perform community service. Failure to comply could result in fines, jail time up to three days, misdemeanor charges for criminally negligent behavior regarding the child’s education, as per the Texas Education Code.

Students with five or more unexcused absences in a semester risk enrollment revocation, potentially hindering graduation or advancement to the next grade level.

Tornillo PreK-8 also initiated a morning hall patrol scheme to motivate students to arrive punctually at school daily.

“The objective was not just to ensure prompt student arrivals but also to cultivate leadership qualities and make them feel valued within the district,” expressed Cassandra Soto, the school’s secretary, to El Paso Matters.

Soto, the program’s creator, targeted students with high absenteeism or tardiness and behavioral issues. Many of these students have since enhanced their attendance and exhibit enthusiasm for daily schooling.

“We’ve observed improvements in attendance and behavior among the students. They even consider it their responsibility, arriving very early,” shared Soto.

Cassandra Soto, secretary at Tornillo ISD’s PreK-8th campus, warmly welcoming students arriving on Feb. 26. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Tornillo ISD leaders believe these initiatives have successfully encouraged students to return to the classroom, leading to improved attendance rates.

Soto sees the potential for other schools to replicate this success, emphasizing, “While we are a smaller district with limited resources compared to others, we have accomplished this, indicating that it is achievable by others as well.”

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