RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — One of the top objectives of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration has been addressing pandemic learning loss across the state. His latest effort is the formation of a “Chronic Absenteeism Task Force.”
The members of the group, which was formed as part of the governor’s “All in VA” plan, met for the first time Tuesday night, discussing why they volunteered to join the effort, what strategies they’re trying and what’s not working.
Superintendents on the task force detailed the concerning ways the issue of chronic absenteeism — defined as missing 18 days over the course of a year, an average of about two days per month — impacts their communities.
Louisa County superintendent J. Douglas Straley said their conversations with teachers have illustrated how chronic absenteeism leads to greater teacher burnout, and thus shortages.
“On any given day, they might have a quarter of their students out of the classroom and that takes a lot of work to catch those students up,” said Straley.
He said it’s demoralizing for teachers to have to put in twice or three times as much effort to get the same result as they already got with other students, instead of that extra effort being rewarded with outcomes above and beyond what would typically be expected.
He and Newport News superintendent Michele Mitchell also both stated that absenteeism is impacting workforce readiness. Staley emphasized that the habit of inconsistently showing up to school is maintained as their students become adults with jobs.
Mitchell said the students also missing out on socialization skills necessary for the workplace, as well as training their community partners need students to have, particularly in industries dealing with severe shortages.
All the superintendents, plus some local programming partners agreed that part of the blame stems from messaging that began during the early COVID-19 pandemic.
“We really stressed the importance of staying home if you had any type of symptoms,” said Staley. “So if you had a headache, if you had a cough, you needed to stay home. And although we don’t want our students coming to school if they’re sick, we don’t want them staying home if they just have a sniffle, but that’s what we stressed for almost two years. So what we’ve really come to a conclusion is, it’s a mindset change.”
They also discussed the strategies they’ve been working on to improve chronic absenteeism. That includes getting help from parents to get kids to the bus stop on time, especially if they don’t have alternative transportation to get them to school and to not schedule appointments during the school day whenever possible.
Some districts, like Newport News, are working with local doctors and dentists to help spread the word about the best time to make those appointments and help keep students in school. Newport News also has a second round bus that helps pick up kids who miss the bus the first time, just in case they don’t have a way to get to school after missing the bus.
But they all agreed that the main focus has to be on creating a culture that makes being at school both important and fun — and doing so as young as possible. Because, as Superintendent Mitchell stated, those who are chronically absent in high school first started trending that way as early as Pre-K.