SDUHSD responds to post-COVID absenteeism rise

More than two years after students returned to full in-person learning following pandemic-era closures, absenteeism rates in California remain up from pre-COVID-19 levels. In response, SDUHSD has increased interventions and support to bring students back to campus.

During the 2021-22 school year, 26% of TPHS students were chronically absent, meaning they were not on campus for 10% or more of the days they were expected to attend, according to the California Department of Education. This marks an increase from pre-pandemic levels of 9% chronic absenteeism during the 2018-19 school year.

“People got comfortable at home,” Assistant Principal Robert Shockney, who oversees attendance at TPHS, said. “We did have quite a bit of trouble getting kids back to school.”

At the district level, 22% of students were chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year compared to approximately 8% in 2018-19, according to the state. At the state level, these rates worsen, with 30% of public school students reported as chronically absent — three times pre-pandemic rates.

In response to these rates, SDUHSD has created a district-wide tiered approach to absenteeism interventions, according to Shockney.

While multiple campuses, including TPHS, employed similar interventions prior to the pandemic, this year marks the first time they are “centrally formalized” across the district, Shockney said.

This “strengthened” system involves three levels of intervention when a student is flagged as being repeatedly absent, all depending on the number of days missed, Shockney said.

The first level, initiated after 12 truancies or absences, involves letters sent home alerting families of the absence and offering support.

If those letters go unanswered, a tier-two response is initiated, which calls for a Student Study Team meeting to discuss steps forward, composed of a counselor, social worker and assistant principal, according to Kylea Sheils, a full-time social worker at TPHS.

This level is where “we connect home to school,” Shockney said.

The highest level of support, initiated after 15 days of absences, involves a referral to the district office, where a School Attendance Review Board is called to assess absenteeism cases and provide further student support.

“Typically we want every student to go through as many interventions before we get to the point where we have to send them up to different tier levels,” Sheils said.

There are multiple channels through which absences are flagged, including by the attendance office and teachers and in monthly meetings between assistant principals and Sheils.

Once a student is flagged as being repeatedly absent, each tier provides varying levels of support.

“It’s very individual-based, connecting students to community resources in the area,” Sheils said.

These services include nutrition, social-emotional resources, transportation options and bilingual communication.

“It’s important for the community to know that we put in our best effort to make sure students’ needs come first,” Sheils said. “We’re not automatically assuming that they’re missing school because they want to.”

In addition to Sheils’ interventions as a social worker, which include home visits initiated by the tier-two SST meeting, TPHS and the wider district have increased support in the past few years to address student attendance.

Sheils, who was hired this year, joined a growing support staff at TPHS, which recently added a seventh counselor. Beyond campus-level support for the general student population, resources for specialized populations have grown at the district level within the past year to include a Coordinator of Multilingual Learners and Bilingual Community Liaisons, who partner with school site administration to communicate with families who speak languages other than English.

At the district level, 29% of Multilingual Learner students were chronically absent in 2022, compared to 23% at TPHS.

Similar trends in higher rates of absenteeism are seen in other specialized populations, including low-income students, of which 37% were chronically absent in 2022.

Moving forward, TPHS and the district are looking to decrease absenteeism rates. Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Bryan Marcus said district leadership is developing strategies into the Local Control and Accountability Plan — a three-year plan to support positive student outcomes — to address absenteeism.

“If our kids aren’t showing up, they are not as likely to graduate from school and our number one priority is to equip every kid in this district to graduate from high school,” Marcus said.

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