Bay View Elementary on the Westside of Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Too many students are missing class: Santa Cruz County schools struggle with steep rise in chronic absenteeism

Local school leaders are working to address chronic absenteeism rates that have remained stubbornly high since the pandemic. In addition to sending letters to families, Santa Cruz County districts are knocking on more doors and making more phone calls home. The strategy is a shift from the past three years of messaging that erred on the side of encouraging students to stay home from school for health and safety reasons.

Santa Cruz County public schools are increasing their messaging about the importance of attending class this academic year in hopes of tackling a chronic absenteeism rate that school leaders are concerned has remained stubbornly high since the pandemic.

In addition to sending letters to parents and guardians encouraging them to send kids to school, several districts said they’re also reaching out to families sooner when a student fails to show up for class. Staff are knocking on more doors and making more phone calls home. Districts countywide have also joined a campaign, Every Day Counts, to encourage attendance.

The strategy is a shift from the past three years of messaging that erred on the side of encouraging students to stay home from school for health and safety reasons.

“It’s important to state the obvious sometimes, and that is, the first, second and third reason [attendance is important] is that students learn more when they’re at school,” said Soquel Union Elementary School District Superintendent Scott Turnbull.

Statewide, chronic absenteeism rates rose from about 12% in the school year prior to the pandemic to 30% during the 2021-22 school year. In Santa Cruz County, the rate jumped from 10.4% to 27% in the same time frame, with chronic absenteeism rates ranging across local school districts from 17.5% to more than 42%.

Some district leaders say they are concerned the rate will be the same or even higher for this school year, leading to the increased efforts this year to emphasize attendance.

While school attendance has always been a priority, the pandemic changed how guardians balance the importance of their kids going to school while also ensuring they’re making the best decision for their health, and the community’s health. Pre-pandemic, parents were far less likely to keep a child home for a runny nose or a cough.

Scott Turnbull, Soquel Union Elementary School District superintendent
Scott Turnbull, the Soquel Union Elementary School District superintendent, in his Capitola office.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s those missed days from COVID-19 and other illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that school leaders believe contributed to the dramatic increase in the rate of students who were chronically absent — those who missed 10% or more of instructional days in a year. School leaders are also citing mental health challenges, which were exacerbated by the pandemic, as a contributing factor.

When schools reopened in the 2021-22 year, districts had been encouraging students who had symptoms of COVID-19 to provide either a negative test or a doctor’s note with a diagnosis of asthma or allergies in order to return to school. Students who couldn’t provide either had to wait 10 days from the onset of symptoms to return to school.

Now, the California Department of Public Health advises staying home for five days after testing positive without symptoms or after the onset of symptoms before returning to school. In addition, at least 24 hours have to have passed since the individual had a fever and their symptoms are mild or improving.

Several local administrators say they have also noticed that the pandemic generally changed families’ attitudes to be more relaxed when it comes to missing school — with more families taking vacations during the school year than pre-pandemic times and families being less likely to encourage attendance when children say they don’t want to attend school.

“I think over time we’ve gotten in the habit, as families, of being more receptive to students staying home,” said Turnbull. “I think it’s just a matter of sharing information, sharing the importance of being in school, and just getting back to some of our previous good habits — prioritizing attendance at school.”

On Wednesday, County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah told a group at the County Office of Education that administrators listed a variety of reasons in a recent survey on chronic absenteeism, including COVID and other illnesses, vacations, and guardians permitting more absences. Sabbah was speaking to a group of community members participating in a program called Inside Education, a group that invites anyone in the community to learn about the programs offered by K-12 public schools and the challenges they face.

Sabbah added that school leaders have noticed that guardians have become somewhat relaxed when it comes to requiring their kids to go to school.

“Before the pandemic, we would have said, ‘Yeah, well, you have to go to school,’ and now there’s more of a reluctance to do that,” said Sabbah. “We think it’s a bunch of different factors.”

Sabbah reiterated that school attendance is essential for student success and so it’s a primary focus of this school year to return to pre-pandemic attendance rates.

Studies show attendance is one of the most important factors in student achievement. Using the recent data on chronic absenteeism, nonprofit research firm Public Policy Institute of California found schools with higher increases in chronic absenteeism recorded greater declines in English and math scores.

Financial impact

Not only does chronic absenteeism affect student success, but attendance figures are used to calculate school funding from the state. Rising absenteeism also comes at a time when school districts locally and statewide are struggling with long-term declines in enrollment.

“It’s a double whammy,” said SUESD’s Turnbull. The district saw its absenteeism rate rise from 10% in 2019 to 26% in 2022, and its enrollment hit a 20-year low last year. “If enrollment is down, so we have fewer students, and a lower percentage of that number is coming to school — besides the educational impact, which always comes first — the fiscal impact is daunting, right?”

San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District Superintendent Chris Schiermeyer said absences brought down the district’s average daily attendance rate from about 95% in the 2019-20 year to 90% last year — creating a loss of $600,000 for the district in state funding. In other words, he said, each percentage point drop in daily attendance led to a loss of about $100,000 for his district.

While Schiermeyer said he doesn’t see a high chronic absenteeism rate in the district right now, and he anticipates the average daily attendance rate will go up this year, local education leaders are watching the numbers with concern.

“That impacts us,” he said. “So this year, we talked countywide about making attendance a message to families.”

He added that San Lorenzo Valley Unified principals will be talking about attendance in their newsletters to their families, and they’ve started using a county program called Student Attendance Review Board, which helps them monitor students who are missing too many school days and reach out to their families.

Schiermeyer said emphasizing attendance wouldn’t have worked last year, when the community faced COVID and an additional wave of RSV. For example, encouraging students to have better attendance during rising rates of illness could confuse families into sending their kids to school while sick.

San Lorenzo Valley High School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“So it was really hard to take a strong attendance stance, because the messaging would be mixed,” he said. “We’re asking parents to keep their kid at home, but at the same time, we need them to come to school.”

Schiermeyer said that while COVID-19 and RSV haven’t gone anywhere, school officials are pushing for a return to normalcy and keeping kids in school.

“Of course if their child is sick, we want them to stay home,” he said. “But the push more is like the gaps in learning loss when your students are not in school.”

In Santa Cruz City Schools, after the first unexcused absence, families in the district will receive an automated call to ask the family to call the school. The school district considers an illness or emergency to be an excused absence, while a family deciding to take their child out of school to go on vacation, or keep them home because of a lack of transportation, are considered unexcused absences.

After the third unexcused absence, the guardians will receive an email or phone call from a social worker to discuss the reasons for the absence. After the sixth, the family will be required to meet with the school principal and the Student Attendance Review Team to create an attendance plan.

After the ninth unexcused absence, the family will be referred to a School Attendance Review Board hearing. The board is made up of representatives from multiple agencies including Family and Children’s Services, probation, school administrators and law enforcement.

Bay View Elementary School Principal Renée Golder said while a variety of factors contributed to the rise in absenteeism, it was the requirements to isolate for COVID that affected the rates the most.

“It’s a broad spectrum at Bay View — there’s families that have a vacation house in Hawaii and want to go away for a week or two. And then there’s families that don’t have transportation or other issues,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a catchall reason for why everybody’s absent.”

Santa Cruz City Schools district social worker Rosa Martinez said over the summer the district started a new attendance summer outreach program focused on students who were chronically absent. She said staff reached out to over 100 families.

Martinez said district officials will tell families their student has been absent and emphasize that their student’s success is dependent on their attendance. Officials then discuss with families the reason for the absence — for example, transportation issues or an illness — and help the families create transportation or medical care plans to ensure kids get to class.

As a result, she said, many kids have improved their attendance.

“We won’t know the outcome of the program until the end of this school year, but for now it’s looking promising,” she wrote in an email to Lookout.

‘It’s not a cure-all’

Scott Turnbull, superintendent of the Soquel Union Elementary School District, in his office in Capitola.
Scott Turnbull, superintendent of the Soquel Union Elementary School District, in his office in Capitola.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Soquel Union’s Turnbull said based on informal data from the 2022-23 school year, he doesn’t expect the chronic absenteeism rate to be much better compared to the 2021-22 school year.

The health challenges families faced were similar both years. “I think it’s going to be in the same range and maybe even a little bit higher,” he said.

But he said he’s confident about strategies to improve attendance this year. He said the district is improving on messaging for when sick kids should stay home or when they can return, and staff members are reaching out more to families when they notice a trend of absenteeism.

The district is also promoting independent study much more as an option for families. With independent study, students can get a pack of coursework from their teacher to finish while at home.

“It’s not a cure-all,” Turnbull said. “But I would say that that’s there’s lots of strategies and not a singular strategy that we’re taking to try to improve in this area.”

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