Chronic absenteeism leads to rise in F grades in most of Utah's largest school districts

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SALT LAKE CITY — The final bell at Cedar Valley High School sends students into the halls, heading for home. But many of them were already in the halls, even during class.

"They come to our school and just kind of wander, they don't go to class," counselor Aprill Triggs said.

Schools all over Utah are dealing with the problem of chronic absenteeism. After the pandemic, students aren't coming back. Educators are seeing thousands of absences, and as a result, failing grades.

John Gordillo started down that path during the pandemic. Last year, he estimates he had 300 absences and 100 tardies.

"I was just outside with my friends. We were just talking. … I didn't care," he said.

He's on a better track now. But school districts all over Utah see students just like him.

"Thirty to 40 percent in some instances are consistently absent. So this is clearly more than 'I'm not feeling well.' This is more like 'I don't want to go to school at all,'" said Ben Horsley, chief of staff at the Granite District.

That sentiment appears contagious.

We contacted the largest school districts across the state. They report attendance differently, but generally, Granite, Alpine, Canyons, Davis, Provo, Nebo, Weber and Washington districts all saw a dramatic spike last year in chronic absences. In many districts, chronic cases have doubled from the normal rates, before the pandemic.

To put that into perspective, many Utah high schools have 3,000 students. If up to 30 percent are absent on any given day, 900 students may be missing in action.

Many educators agree, the pandemic created an environment where students were often not in class, and they knew they could access the day's homework online.

Thirty to 40 percent in some instances are consistently absent. So this is clearly more than 'I'm not feeling well.' This is more like 'I don't want to go to school at all.'

–Ben Horsley, Granite District chief of staff

"We did go through that significant period of time where we did things at home and things were a lot more flexible," Horsley said.

But school administrators say that's not the only reason students are skipping. They point to the state Capitol and recent changes to Utah Law.

  • HB81 added behavioral or mental health as a valid excuse for missing school.
  • HB116 prohibited schools from requiring a doctor's note for an excused absence.
  • SB219 put a moratorium on truancy enforcement. That law expired in July 2022.

Schools feel hard-pressed to hold students accountable.

"What I think they do know is there are no consequences," Triggs said.

But, it is becoming clear, there are consequences for missing school — in the form of failing grades.

"We saw a pretty significant rise in F's and D's," said Brian McGill, director of student services at Canyons School District.

Comparing the 2018 to the 2021 school year at the Canyons district , "F" grades shot up 73% among ninth graders and 74% among 10th graders.

In Provo, "F" grades increased about the same among juniors and seniors.

Most of our other districts also saw dramatically more F's. Washington District says they look at test scores, not letter grades.

"They're not earning the credit that is needed to graduate from high school," Triggs said.

"Putting themselves in a position for scholarships and college admissions is important too," McGill said.

Schools are rightfully concerned about getting students caught up. And they're going to great lengths to pull students back to class.


Canyons School District has created a peer court. Students like Cameryn Coffey are peer judges who help students with chronic absences work through problems or obstacles to school.

"We sympathize and I understand, I do the same thing. But this is why I keep going to class, and this is what motivates me. And we'll talk about what would motivate them to class," Coffey said.

In Granite District, many schools are accommodating a late-start option, where parents can let their teens take an online first period so they can sleep in a bit longer.

Alpine District was one of the few that avoided huge jumps in Fs. They believe the reason is their focus on building teacher-student relationships. For example, at Cedar Valley, students have the same homeroom teacher for all four years, so they build a connection.

"We feel like if there's a relationship with a trusted adults, an adult that they care about, that they'll come to school and that they'll want to be here," Triggs said.

For John, that has made a difference. He credits a special teacher, Brian Anderson, and his counselor Aprill Triggs, for helping him find a pathway back.

"The staff here is so cool. They just really helped me out with a lot of stuff," he said.

He'll have to recover a lot of credits in summer school. But he's motivated for his future.

"I'm on a pretty straight road now," he said.

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Deanie Wimmer


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