Skipping school has been identified as a hidden educational crisis.

Chronic absenteeism — or missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason, excused or unexcused — is a proven early warning sign of academic risk and school dropout.

It’s an old problem, but the search is on for new answers. In a concerted effort to reduce chronic absenteeism in school, the Oklahoma State Department of Education has launched a work group to study the problem and recommend potential solutions

The group, consisting of representatives of community nonprofits and education advocacy organizations, is a result of an October 2017 Community Convening called by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

Its nearly 300 participants were asked to commit to one or more of four critical areas addressing the “whole child” needs of Oklahoma schoolchildren. In addition to chronic absenteeism, they included children in trauma, reading readiness and child nutrition.

Some of the reasons for the absences include illness, a need to care for younger siblings during the day, or a lack of stable housing. Other factors that contribute to absenteeism were identified as mental health obstacles, lack of transportation and poor nutrition, which can lead to obesity and bullying.

At Pawhuska’s public school district, high school Principal Lauri Lee said that “it seems that all groups of students are affected by chronic absenteeism.”

Lee noted that more than 15 percent of students in the district are chronically absent, and that number has increased in the past five years. Students who miss more than nine days a semester, fail those classes, she said.

“Many factors keep students from attending school. Adults’ lack of value of time spent in the classroom is a major factor,” she said.

The district is working to ensure students stay in school and reduce chronic absenteeism by improving curriculum, increasing technology use, and enforcing truancy policies, said Lee.

According the OSDE, a pattern of chronic absenteeism can begin as early as kindergarten and often follows students throughout school. Members of the newly formed work group pointed to greater challenges for schools in smaller communities, where local resources are scarce or geographically distant.

The work group plans to tackle more specific areas within chronic absenteeism throughout the spring and summer. The goal is to finalize a list of action items and recommendations to OSDE in the fall.