COVID Funds Help Hawaii Schools Tackle Absenteeism. What Happens When They Run Out?

While chronic absenteeism improved across the state last year, some groups of students still lag behind in their attendance rates.

Aiea Elementary in Honolulu saw significant improvements in its attendance rates between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. (David Croxford/Civil Beat)

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Bilingual home assistants, more counselors and attendance arcades to reward students who arrive on-time were among the public school initiatives aimed at reducing chronic absenteeism, which spiked during the pandemic.

The push, which was funded by federal COVID-relief money, helped boost overall attendance rates during the 2022-23 academic year, with 30% of students statewide chronically absent compared to 37% in the previous year. However, the rates remain high compared with those before the pandemic, with the 2018-19 school year seeing 15% students chronically absent, meaning they missed 15 or more days of school.

Absenteeism among traditionally disadvantaged groups like homeless and low-income students as well as Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians was even higher. Within these groups, 55% to 40% of students qualified as chronically absent in the 2022-23 school year. That too was an improvement compared with 66% to 50% of students in those groups in the previous year.

Many students have struggled with the need to return to campus after spending months at home doing online or hybrid classes during the height of the pandemic.

Getting Kids Back To School

Chronic absenteeism rates are declining across the country, but many states still have yet to return to their pre-pandemic levels of attendance, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit addressing chronic absenteeism. During the pandemic, she added, absenteeism rates nearly doubled across the country, with 30% of students nationwide considered chronically absent. 

Students miss school for a variety of other reasons as well, from experiencing housing instability to feeling unsafe on campus, said deputy superintendent Heidi Armstrong. As a result, the state Department of Education used federal COVID-relief funds to support a range of initiatives addressing the problem. 

“Getting to know students and the causes of their absences help guide the schools in providing the appropriate wraparound support so we can address the issues that are prohibiting students from coming to school,” Armstrong said.

Those included the addition of more counselors to help students transition back to campus and attendance arcades to reward students who arrived on time.

But despite the imposing attendance rates, the question remains if the state can maintain the momentum as the COVID relief funds run out. 

Armstrong couldn’t provide an estimate of the total amount of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds spent on improving attendance because they covered other efforts as well. But as the ESSER funds expire next fall, she added, schools will need to find money in their own budgets or apply to outside grants to continue the initiatives. 

The absenteeism rates are included in annual assessments released by the DOE. They reflect the performance of all public school students in Hawaii, including those attending charter schools.

Helping Underserved Communities

There’s also the question of whether the state can continue to provide more targeted support to communities struggling the most. 

Homeless, low-income and foster students saw some of the greatest gains in attendance over the past two years. Armstrong said some campuses received bilingual bicultural school home assistants who could speak to parents about the importance of regular school attendance.

Aiea Elementary’s chronic absenteeism rate dropped from 69% to 41% of all students between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. The decline for certain groups of students at the Oahu school was even greater, at 36% for Pacific Islanders and 30% for economically disadvantaged students.

Counselor Gavin Takeno attributed Aiea Elementary’s improvement in part to the school’s health practitioner, who was brought on staff in the 2022-23 academic year. The practitioner occasionally came along on counselors’ home visits to families and was able to offer check-ups for sick students, Takeno said.

Takeno also said he enlisted the help of a Chuukese translator on staff, who helped bridge the language barrier between families and teachers during home visits.

We’re building a positive relationship, just so the parents understand and know that we’re not just here to harp on you guys,” Takeno said. “We’re here to help you guys, we understand there’s some challenges.”

Bus Problems

Principal Sharon Beck said bus transportation is a major issue for Ka’u High and Pahala Elementary, adding that one of the four bus routes to and from the school has lacked a driver since the start of the academic year. A lack of bus transportation disproportionately affects low-income families, she added, who may be unable to take their children to school due to the costs of gas or responsibilities at work. 

Between Oct. 23 and Nov. 6, the school recorded an average daily attendance of 82% for its middle and high schoolers, Beck said. But the school always strives for an average attendance rate of 95% of students, she added. 

Other states have taken efforts to address chronic absenteeism a step further. 

In 2018, New Jersey passed a law defining chronic absenteeism and requiring districts with high absenteeism rates to create corrective action plans to address student attendance rates. The law also required schools to publish their chronic absenteeism rates in their report cards, said Cynthia Rice, a senior policy analyst at Advocates for Children of New Jersey. 

While the law’s implementation coincided with the start of the pandemic, Rice said it provided a framework to hold districts accountable for their attendance rates as students returned in the coming years. 

“We’re doing OK,” Rice said, referring to the state’s overall absenteeism rates. “But when we look at individual (district) numbers it’s appalling.” 

In early 2021, Connecticut also introduced a home visitation program to promote student attendance as they returned to campuses, Chang said. The program, which spanned 15 districts across the state, promoted positive relationships between schools and families, particularly those who were from high-needs populations, she added. 

She added that targeted support around chronic absenteeism needs to continue, even as federal relief dollars expire and schools see slow improvements in their attendance rates. 

“A lot of this does require people power,” Chang said. “The ending of ESSER relief is a bit challenging because we might not be able to fully recover yet before the dollars go out.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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