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SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly one-fifth of Utah public school students are chronically absent, a rate that has almost doubled in the past decade.
"There is currently a 19% chronic absenteeism rate, which is reflective of 122,626 students in 2021," Deputy State Superintendent of Student Achievement Patty Norman told state lawmakers recently.
Utah schools "are feeling powerless regarding student attendance," she said.
Brett Peterson, director of the Utah Division of Juvenile Justice and Youth Services, said a legislative working group representing educators, Department of Health and Human Services agencies, nonprofit and private partners that has been studying chronic absenteeism quickly discovered that the issue is profoundly complex.
"There's not any one-off reason when we have kids who are absent chronically or truant," Peterson said.
But the trend is worrisome because students who are chronically absent from school can fall behind and are at higher risk of dropping out. They can have higher rates of juvenile justice system involvement and engaging in risky behaviors, which can contribute to negative health outcomes in adulthood.
"We know that students attending schools, being educated by their high-quality teachers, is what's going to keep them there and then keep them out of trouble within those systems," Norman said.
Some schools and districts have reported that the drop in regular school attendance contributed to some schools and districts reporting that 70% of their students had failing grades, she said.
"If kids aren't getting their grades, if they're not being able to pass these courses, then that is contributing to our dropout rate," Norman told members of the Utah Legislature's Education Interim Committee.
Amy Steele-Smith, prevention specialist with the Utah State Board of Education, said it is likely that COVID-19 has impacted current attendance data, but more work is needed to better understand causality.
"We do know that the chronic absenteeism percentage from 2017 to 2020 increased from 11% to 19%. We also know that our kindergarten students presently are our most chronically absent of all grades at 21%," she said.
It's one reason that the Utah State Board of Education is asking state lawmakers for more funding, approximately $53.6 million, to add more full-day kindergarten classes.
Kindergarten is not required in Utah but there appears to be growing demand for full-time options, which benefit children educationally, socially and nutritionally, but also provide more consistency for working parents.
When the Wasatch School District adopted a full-day kindergarten schedule starting in 2018 , it also offered the option for half-day attendance.
With each passing year, more and more parents have embraced the full-day experience for their children. Only about 1% request half-day kindergarten, said Superintendent Paul Sweat in an earlier interview.
Why school attendance matters
The State School Board is asking for an appropriation to expand the reach of the Check & Connect initiative. The funding would be used for grants to school districts and charter schools and to turn a part-time position in the office of the Utah State Board of Education that supports the effort to a full-time post.
According to the University of Minnesota' Institute on Community Integration, Check & Connect is an evidence-based intervention used with K-12 students who show warning signs of disengagement with school such as poor attendance, low grades and behavioral issues and are at risk of dropping out.
"At the core of Check & Connect is a trusting relationship between the student and a caring, trained mentor who both advocates for and challenges the student to keep education salient," according to the institute's website .
Mentors monitor absences, tardies, suspensions, expulsions, behavioral referrals, failing classes and credits accrued. Based on that information, they develop individualized interventions. They also communicate with the student's parents or guardians and enlist their support.
The initiative has largely been used for youth who are in state care, such as foster care or those receiving services from Juvenile Justice and Youth Services.
"We would like to expand it to provide services for all youth who may have increased risk factors for dropping out," Steele-Smith said.
According to the University of Minnesota Institute on Community Integration, "Demonstrated outcomes of Check & Connect include a decrease in truancy, tardies, behavior referrals and dropout rates; increase in attendance, persistence in school, credits accrued and school completion; and impact on literacy."
Adult health outcomes
While the educational impacts of chronic absenteeism or truancy are well understood, lower educational attainment can also impact adult health outcomes.
According to a 2019 policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, poor adult health outcomes are associated with poor school performance.
Adults with lower educational attainment are more likely to smoke and less likely to exercise, which are directly linked to poor health outcomes.
"Not earning a high school diploma is associated with increased mortality risk or lower life expectancy," according to the academy's policy statement.
Not earning a high school diploma is associated with increased mortality risk or lower life expectancy.
–American Academy of Pediatrics, 2019 policy statement
Baby Boomers likely remember end-of-year school assemblies when students were singled out for not missing a single school day in an academic year.
At a time when schools have encouraged students and staff to stay home if they are sick and Utah has passed legislation that requires schools to accept "mental health days" as excused absences, is perfect attendance even feasible or desirable?
"Attendance does not need to be perfect, but attendance does matter," said Steele-Smith.
"Good attendance sets habits that are lifelong and have an impact on multiple facets of our lives. In conversations with employers, one of the concerns they have is reliability in their younger employees. Learning to follow through and attend school will have a positive impact on students' growth, not just in academics but other areas as well," she said.
Good attendance in kindergarten has impacts on future academic achievement and in turn, graduation, Steele-Smith said.
"Kindergarten students who are chronically absent are more likely to be behind their peers academically in third grade. This is significant, because it is in third grade that we begin reading to learn, not learning to read," she said.
Often, if a student is not performing on grade level as they leave third grade, they are still behind in sixth grade, said Steele-Smith.
"I always say, as adults, we need to model and maintain high expectations while providing the right amount of support," she said. "It is important for Utah to have and to build a culture of attendance for our students that is supported by adults."