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How transportation can help with chronic absenteeism

As schools across the country reopened this fall and students and teachers headed back to classrooms, the nation held its breath with a mixture of excitement and concern. 

Would parents gladly send their children back to the classroom or would they opt to keep them home? Would students struggle to catch up and reacclimate to full days of in-person learning? Would there be confusion about following CDC safety guidelines? Would COVID-19 outbreaks once again cause schools to close?

The challenges schools have faced — and continue to grapple with — due to COVID-19 are many and varied. And the scope of the devastating impact on students continues to be revealed. 

Just a few months into the 2021–2022 school year, one thing has become clear: chronic absenteeism is soaring.

Chronic absenteeism was a problem even before COVID-19

Much like the bus driver shortages, chronic absenteeism is an existing problem plaguing schools across the country; it has only worsened due to the pandemic. According to EdSource, factors such as required quarantines, disengagement from school, independent study and remote learning options and mental health issues — including feelings of overwhelm and fear or anxiety related to COVID — are all contributing to a surge in student absenteeism. 

While complete attendance data for the current school year isn’t yet fully available, school districts are understandably keeping a close eye on things and many are sounding the alarm bell.

  • In Gloucester, Massachusetts, 25–30% of high school students have recently been reported as chronically absent.
  • According to data from the Michigan Department of Education, 20% of Michigan public school students have been chronically absent during the 2020–2021 school year. 
  • In Cleveland, Ohio, nearly half of the school district’s students — 47% — are on track to be chronically absent so far this school year. 
  • Thermalito Union Elementary in Northern California — a 1,500-student mostly low-income rural district — has reported that 46% of its students have been chronically absent this school year, up from 8.8% two years ago.

If these numbers are any indication, chronic absenteeism may be a bigger problem for schools post-COVID with more long-term consequences for students.

The correlation between attendance and student success

In the first month of school, absenteeism correlates to poor attendance throughout the school year. Half the students who miss two to four days in September will go on to miss nearly a month of school that year, qualifying those students as “chronically absent.” By 6th grade, chronic absenteeism becomes a leading indicator that a student will drop out of high school.

According to Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that aims to “advance student success and help close equity gaps by reducing chronic absence,” more than 8 million students are at risk academically because of frequent school absences. Chronic absenteeism can contribute to numerous educational challenges for students including difficulty learning to read, limited achievement in middle school and a lower chance of graduating from high school.

Historically, absenteeism has been misunderstood as a failure of parenting or even a moral failure of the student or family to adequately prioritize school attendance. This flawed understanding of chronic absenteeism relegated schools to punishing truancy as a form of juvenile delinquency, which often worsened attendance and related outcomes.

We understand now that many factors outside the control of students and parents contribute to chronic absenteeism. Kids may face developmental challenges such as ADHD, chronic illnesses like asthma, mental health challenges like phobias or depression, or even school-related anxiety or bullying that may worsen absenteeism and tip it into the chronic zone.

A lack of safe, reliable transportation could be a significant factor, too

Another critical reason kids might be missing way too much school: no consistent way to get there. When children cannot secure a ride to and from school, getting there is impossible — unless they live within walking distance. Limited access to transportation is a common issue in poor and geographically isolated areas, and it often impacts vulnerable students such as those experiencing homelessness and foster youth

Now, with severe school bus driver shortages, a traditional ride on a big yellow bus is becoming harder to come by. More and more, it’s looking like school districts will need to rely on new solutions — including alternative forms of student transportation (like public transportation vouchers, private cars or a transportation network company like HopSkipDrive) — to ensure their most at-risk students make it to school regularly. 

Whether there’s no reliable car, parents have work commitments or school is just too far away, the factors that contribute to chronic absenteeism are numerous. And while none of them can be easily solved, student transportation kids can rely on can make a huge difference.

Now, there’s a new partnership to reduce chronic absenteeism

Enter the experts. With a more holistic and less punitive approach, FutureEd — a think tank affiliated with Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy — has partnered with Attendance Works to publish the “Attendance Playbook: Smart Solutions for Reducing Chronic Absenteeism in the COVID Era.”

According to FutureEd, this important resource reflects “schools’ realities during and after the pandemic” and “offers ideas for how to encourage and track attendance during distance learning.” It also includes more than two dozen “effective and readily scalable approaches” to help schools decrease chronic absenteeism.

These strategies address such things as: 

  • The importance of effective messaging about attendance
  • The role attendance plays in promoting student achievement
  • The importance of creating a welcoming school climate and building a sense of belonging
  • Barriers to getting to school

Much-needed solutions to ensure educational access for all

Per the Attendance Playbook, “One in four African-American households and one in six Latinx households do not own a car, compared to one in 15 white households.” Rural students who live far from district bus routes can also be disadvantaged when it comes to having access to consistent, reliable transportation. 

To address mobility as a barrier to attendance, FutureEd prescribes a range of targeted transportation solutions that includes HopSkipDrive. As a team with education and academic pursuit in its DNA, we’re proud and honored to be mentioned in this context — and we’re eager to work with any school or school district that is looking for help with chronic absenteeism intervention.

Transportation equals access to opportunity — and every child is deserving of a high-quality education. By pursuing our mission of “creating opportunity for all through mobility,” we aim to even the playing field for children everywhere.

We’re so appreciative to FutureEd and Attendance Works for elevating this issue in our national dialogue, and providing practical, immediate solutions to this complicated problem.


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