San Jose students are chronically absent from class
Students at Merritt Trace Elementary School are pictured in this file photo.

    Santa Clara County’s largest school district is dealing with a double-digit absenteeism problem and working to understand why.

    Schools are combatting chronic absenteeism through a multi-faceted approach as more and more students miss class, possibly due to COVID-19 infections, mental health issues or other factors.

    Recent data shows the San Jose Unified School District has had a 17% absenteeism rate since the start of the school year through mid-September. The percentage is high, but an improvement over rates that reached as high as 25% during the pandemic. In a district that serves more than 30,000 students, it means one out of four students missed school.

    “Prior to the pandemic starting, we were always under the (chronic absenteeism rate) target of 9%,” said San Jose Unified School District Superintendent Nancy Albarran. “Now, every large district, the urban districts in particular, are really struggling with chronic absenteeism.”

    Students are defined as chronically absent if they miss 10%, or 18 days, of the school year.

    Schools are working to provide families with community-based support and viewing absenteeism as a lingering symptom of the pandemic, officials said at a recent SJUSD board meeting. Chronic absenteeism could have impacts on students’ academic success.

    Darbi O’Connell, director of student services for the school district, said ongoing COVID infections could be a factor, as students may spend extended periods at home recovering. Rates for chronic absenteeism differ depending on grade level, she said. While school districts are rolling back cautionary measures such as mask mandates this year, students and staff are still falling ill.

    “COVID is still with us,” O’Connell said. “If a student has to be home for COVID exposure or COVID illness this year, it’s very possible that they are part of these chronic absentee rates right now.”

    Elementary schools in the district are facing chronic absenteeism rates from 13.4% to as high as 31.2%. The ranges are slightly lower for middle schools and high schools, at 10% to 22% and 10% to 23.5%, respectively.

    Students who are chronically absent do not face punitive measures, but high absenteeism rates serve as an indicator for underlying problems in the district, said Stephen McMahon, SJUSD deputy superintendent.

    If a student is chronically absent, their families are encouraged to attend school-held neighborhood meetings where the importance of attendance is emphasized, said O’Connell. Other interventions include individual conversations with counselors or connecting families to community-based organizations.

    “Everybody really has a hand in addressing any attendance problems that we have with students,” O’Connell said.

    Another potential cause for absenteeism might be high levels of anxiety and emotional stress, an issue before the pandemic. Cheryl Elafifi, a Willow Glen Middle School teacher, said the district is placing emphasis on mental wellness as campuses are incorporating social emotional learning curriculum to help students address any mental trauma from the past two years. The district opened wellness centers earlier this year, staffed with mental health counselors to assist in addressing the issue.

    “Decreased stress increases self awareness, it improves academic performance, gives more self confidence and a greater ability to focus in class,” Elafifi said.

    The situation is happening countywide and so disconcerting that last year it prompted the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to draw up a plan to tackle and fund the crisis. Data from Santa Clara Unified School District shows a chronic absenteeism rate as high as 20% over the course of the pandemic, although that number decreased to 10% this school year. Data from Evergreen Elementary School District shows some schools in the district had chronic absenteeism rates as high as 19% last school year.

    County data reveals chronic absenteeism disproportionately impacts low-income students. Students who deal with absenteeism as early as preschool are more likely to struggle with reading in elementary school, which impacts academic success in high school.

    Ultimately, attendance is an important factor in ensuring students are fully supported at school and can perform academically, Albarran said.

    “We want the kids to be there so we can support them,” Albarran said. “We want them to understand how to be at school, how to interact with other people, how to ask for help when they need it.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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