Empty seats: COVID pandemic not the only reason for spike in chronic absenteeism in Arizona

Feb 2, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 10:58 am
(Facebook Photo/Donald Babiano)...
(Facebook Photo/Donald Babiano)
(Facebook Photo/Donald Babiano)

This is the second of a four-part series examining chronic absenteeism in Arizona schools. Read part one here.

PHOENIX — The number of Arizona students missing school has skyrocketed over the last few years. The COVID pandemic isn’t the only reason.

A report by the Helios Education Foundation in partnership with WestEd found 22% – or one in five –elementary and junior high students were chronically absent in 2021. That’s a jump from up to 14% prior to the pandemic.

“I think we have to both think about what are the barriers that keep kids from getting to school and what is it that pulls kids to be in school?” Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit trying to improve school attendance, said.

She said some of the barriers are chronic illness, lack of transportation and unstable housing. What goes on in school can also play a role, including bullying and feeling embarrassed about being behind academically.

In addition, if students don’t feel connected or have a sense of belonging at school, chances are they’ll feel disengaged and won’t attend.

“One of the things we know about chronic absence data is that it affects low-income kids more because they don’t have the same resources,” Chang said.

She pointed out more affluent families usually “go into gear” to find a tutor or an after-school program when their kids start to fall behind.

“Low-income families often don’t have those resources to do that,” Chang said.

She added misconceptions about missing school can also lead to students to become chronically absent. This includes the belief that absences are only a problem if they are unexcused or that missing only a couple of days per month doesn’t affect learning.

Chronically absent students are at higher risk of dropping out of high school, not going to college and having limited career options, according to the Helios report.

Michael Yracheta of Buckeye is well aware of this, saying students won’t learn if they don’t go to school.

He and his wife, Emilia, have made it a point to stress to their three kids the importance of getting an education.

“In order to do that, you have to show up every day to school – every day,” Emilia said.

Their efforts have worked.

Their 14-year-old son won’t miss school even after a medical procedure prevented his parents from being able to take him to school. Emilia donated a kidney to her husband, and it took them two weeks to recover.

Michael said they explained to their son that he’d have to miss several days of school. He quickly came up with a plan to ride his bike to Michael Anderson School in Avondale.

“You have to understand we live 15 miles away from the school,” he said. “We told him, ‘Rene, you can’t ride your bike to school it’s too far.’”

The teen ended up getting a ride to his grandmother’s house and took the bus from there.

“He kept coming up with ideas, because he didn’t want to miss any days,” Michael said. “That’s how important school is to him.”

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Empty seats: COVID pandemic not the only reason for spike in chronic absenteeism in Arizona