Supporting school attendance
Nearly all student groups showed increased absenteeism in the 2021–22 school year
A landscape photograph of a classroom filled with students sitting at their desks working on classwork
As students return to school for the 2022–23 school year, education leaders are focusing on addressing continuing issues with student attendance. According to a June 2022 report from Attendance Works, Monitoring Who Is Missing Too Much School: A Review of State Policy and Practice in School Year 2021– 22, nearly all student groups suffered from absenteeism during the pandemic, but historically marginalized groups tended to miss more school and fall further behind academically. CSBA reached out to Attendance Works Executive Director Hedy Chang to survey the California attendance landscape and learn about best practices for addressing chronic absenteeism.

How have rates of chronic absenteeism changed since students came back from school closures in the 2021–22 school year?

The reality is attendance was even more challenging this past school year than during quarantine and distance learning. According to the California Department of Education’s DataQuest tool, chronic absence was 14.3 percent in 2021–22 versus 12.1 percent in 2020–21. But preliminary data from a set of 33 districts collected by School Innovations & Achievement suggests chronic absence has at least doubled since before the pandemic. This is similar to what we are seeing nationwide. In addition, we’ve seen data from districts that suggest chronic absence is extraordinarily high among our youngest learners as well as among high school students. These patterns are not new, but the levels are much higher.

In addition, chronic absence data reflects educational inequities that are being exacerbated by the pandemic. Certain student populations, children living in poverty, African American, Native American, Latino and Pacific Islander students are especially affected. These are also the same groups that have experienced the greatest illness and death as well as economic challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Chronic absence is a leading indicator of educational inequity — it’s the canary in the coal mine that alerts us that an individual student or groups of students are at risk of falling behind and gives us enough time to address challenges and provide support.”
Hedy Chang, Executive Director, Attendance Works
How is California doing on tracking student attendance since schools reopened?
The good news is California schools track and monitor daily attendance. California could be doing an even better job if it would pay more attention to monitoring attendance by period in secondary schools and calculating chronic absence as missing 10 percent of periods. Because schools are funded based upon attendance, typically districts count students as present for a day as long as they show up to at least one period. As a result, we are underestimating the number of middle and high school students at risk academically because they are missing too much school.
How should schools use attendance data? Is it important to disaggregate excused and unexcused absences?
Schools should monitor attendance daily so they notice chronic absence, missing 10 percent of the school year for any reason, as soon as possible. Chronic absence is a leading indicator of educational inequity — it’s the canary in the coal mine that alerts us that an individual student or groups of students are at risk of falling behind and gives us enough time to address challenges and provide support.

When chronic absence occurs, it is a sign of challenges outside and inside schools — e.g. unstable housing, unreliable transportation, disengaging educational experiences, bullying — that not only cause absences but also affect children’s ability to learn overall if they are left unaddressed.

While it is important to monitor the total number of absences, it is also helpful to examine how many absences are excused versus unexcused overall and by populations of students. California law outlines a set of reasons for which absences can be excused — e.g. illness, quarantine, funeral services for immediate family, medical appointments and most recently for mental health. Any other absences, for example, lack of transportation or caring for siblings are typically considered unexcused.

If large numbers of absences are unexcused, especially for particular student populations, it could indicate that the current practices for labeling absences are not working and need to be improved. Unexcused absences are part of our truancy system, which seeks to deter willful absences and typically trigger an escalating series of increasingly punitive actions. But a deterrence approach doesn’t work when absences are caused by economic or community challenges or school climate issues that fall outside of the control of a student or family. Rather a punitive and legalistic approach can undermine the ability of a school to build relationships with students and families, which are critical to identifying and addressing the root causes of absences. Ensuring we do not inappropriately take punitive action is especially critical given the challenges created by the pandemic, especially for students and families struggling with poverty and from racially marginalized communities.

School boards can ask for regular updates on attendance and chronic absence. They can also invite concerned citizens and community leaders to offer their perspectives on what is leading to the high rates of absenteeism and identify solutions.

Elements that contribute to regular attendance

A visual, digital graph representation of elements that contribute to regular attendance

What are best practices when it comes to encouraging student attendance?

We know that students are more likely to attend regularly when schools have in place positive conditions for learning. Students attend when school is a) physically and emotionally healthy and safe; b) creates a sense of belonging, connection and support; c) offers academic challenge and engagement; and d) when schools are made up of staff and students who have the well-being and the emotional competence to build the relationships that are at the core of these positive conditions of learning. Chronic absence occurs when challenges in the community or in the school erode these positive conditions.

At the school level, it helps to have a team that monitors when students are missing too many days and organizes the staff to respond sooner versus later to understand why students are missing and offer support to remove barriers to attendance.

Attendance Works has developed a new framework for communicating with families and students about why showing up to school matters. It is embedded in a whole child perspective and offers a memorable way to explain how being in school supports students’ social-emotional and physical well-being while providing opportunities to learn and achieve.

Simply emphasizing the impact of days missed on learning does not adequately recognize the overwhelming stresses many students and families are faced with during the pandemic. Our toolkit “Showing Up Matters for R.E.A.L” ( encourages schools to show how attending school is an opportunity to build routines, increase engagement, provide access to resources and support learning.

What are some basic interventions that should be used once a student has been identified as chronically absent?

A variety of interventions can be used once a student has been chronically absent. The key to success is first building a strong and trusting relationship as well as finding out and addressing the root causes of the absences. Potential interventions include:

  • Common community and school barriers identified and addressed
  • Individualized student success plan that includes attention to attendance
  • Attendance strategies added to individualized education programs (IEPs)
  • Family visits
  • Mentors
  • Intensive tutoring
  • Expanded learning opportunities
  • Small group interventions and supports for students
  • Restorative alternatives to discipline and suspension

If students are missing 20 percent or more of school, additional and intensive case management with collaboration across agencies may need to be added.