Chronic absenteeism soared during the pandemic. Here's why Arizona students still aren't going to school

Schools are offering incentives to students to get them back into the classroom

Daniel Gonzalez
Arizona Republic

Kya Matson had a hard time getting to school last year.

The third-grader was sick a few times with the flu or a cold, but issues with some friends also made her not want to go.

So her mother, Krystale Matson, let Kya stay home.

"I believe in mental health days," Matson said. "But the days add up faster than you realize."

Kya ended up missing 23 days of school last year. That put her above the threshold of being deemed chronically absent, defined as missing 10%, or 18 days, of the 180-day school year.

Things were not going much better this year. Now in fourth grade at Desert Star School in Goodyear, 10-year-old Kya has already missed 16 days of school, putting her at risk of being deemed chronically absent for the second academic year in a row.

Matson believes a big part of why Kya didn't want to go to school is because she had become accustomed to staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic is changing: Will omicron bring a 'new normal' for COVID-19?

During those many months learning remotely on computers, Kya didn't have much interaction with friends. So the transition back to being in school and interacting with friends became hard, her mother said.

"Some days she would come to me and be like, 'Mom, I can't handle school right now. And she would be sad or upset and I would let (her) stay home. Or some days she'd wake up and just be like, 'I don't want to go to school. I don't want to do it,'" Matson recalled.

Kya's experiences with missing a lot of school after the pandemic are not unique.

Kya Matson, 10, a fourth grader, and her mother Krystale Matson pose for a portrait at Desert Star School on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Phoenix.

Chronic absenteeism already was high in Arizona, but the chronic absentee rate skyrocketed during the pandemic, especially among students of color and students from lower-income families, data shows. It has remained high, raising concerns that chronically absent students are losing out on learning that could put them behind academically for years and widen existing achievement gaps.

Some schools are taking steps to reduce the number of days students are missing and get them back on track, not through punitive measures as was done in the past but by taking a more positive approach.

Those efforts, which include identifying chronically absent students such as Kya and reaching out to them individually, are working, school officials say.

At Desert Star, Kya now participates in a new program that pairs her with an older sixth grader. Kya meets with her mentor in the morning before the bell rings, and the two share a hot breakfast.

"She looks forward to that. She has somebody to eat with," her mother said. "Sometimes Kya will tell me, 'Let's go so we can get there in time for breakfast, so I can go meet with my mentor.'"

The school also started a program that rewards classrooms with perfect attendance. Each home room receives a star each day no students are absent. For every 10 stars, the class receives a reward. In Kya's class, students earn 15 minutes of Friday recess for 10 stars, a hot dog day for 20 stars, a free dress day for 30 stars, a popcorn day for 40 stars and a movie party for 50 stars.

Her mother has noticed a difference. Kya has missed fewer days lately.

More missed school means students fall more behind

Ryan Vaughn is the assistant principal at Desert Star. The incentives have helped reduced the chronic absentee rate, he said. The rate shot up from around 6% to 8% before the pandemic to nearly 25% during the pandemic. As of early March, the school's chronic absentee rate was down to 8.6%, he said.

By the end of the school year, Vaughn estimates the school's chronic absentee could end up about 10%, if some students who are just below the 18-day threshold miss more days. That still will be less than half of what it was the previous school year.

Ryan Vaughn, assistant principal, poses for a portrait at Desert Star School on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Phoenix. Vaughn has worked at the school for three years and at the district for 18 years.

Reducing the chronic absentee rate is important so students don't fall behind, Vaughn said.

About 75% of the school's 664 schools are Latino or Black and about 60% to 65% are economically disadvantaged, according to Vaughn.

"If they're not in front of a teacher, they're not getting the education that they deserve," Vaughn said. "They're falling behind their peers. And each year gets more complicated and harder, and the standards get more in-depth. And then the more school that you miss, the further behind you get in your education."

Still feeling stressed and sad?New report says you're certainly not alone

Spike in chronic absenteeism is 'truly a crisis'

About 100,000 Arizona students were deemed chronically absent each year during the three years leading up to the pandemic, or about 12% to 14% of the state's 1.1 million students, according to 2022 report by Helios Education Foundation, and WestEd, both nonprofit research organizations. The report analyzed Arizona Department of Education data.

Midway through the 2019-2020 school year, schools were directed to pause attendance tracking as they transitioned from in-person to remote online learning during the pandemic.

When attendance tracking resumed in the 2020-21 school year, Arizona's chronic absentee rate shot up to 22%, according to the report. That means about 242,000 students in Arizona were chronically absent that year.

Chronic absentee rates increased for all students during the pandemic. But they increased the most among students who are economically disadvantaged and Black, Latino and Native American students, the report said.

"This issue of chronic absence and the broader lingering effects of COVID is I think, fair to say, truly a crisis," said Paul Luna, president and CEO of Helios.

Luna said he was particularly concerned that chronic absenteeism is affecting underserved communities.

Absenteeism rates won't decrease unless educators take action, Luna said.

"Chronic absences of students is not going to change and improve without intervention, without action, without focus and attention, without collaboration and partnership, without awareness and a commitment to do something," Luna said.

Students respond better to positive efforts to stem absenteeism

Many factors cause students to become chronically absent, including a lack of transportation, unstable housing and other barriers; bullying at school; disengagement; and a lack of understanding of how missing school can hinder academic progress, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a research group.

Those issues disproportionately affect disadvantaged students, causing them to miss more days of school and fall further behind, widening achievement gaps, Chang said. What's more, disadvantaged students often lack the resources to help them catch up, she said.

Those of us "who are more affluent, when our kids start to fall behind, we go into gear. It doesn't matter what the school offers, we're going to find tutoring. We're going to find engaging after-school" programs, Chang said. "Lower income families often don't have those resources to do that. Once you're behind, it makes it harder to show up because you're embarrassed about showing up."

In the past, schools have sent truancy letters to parents warning that students could be suspended or expelled for being chronically absent. But punitive approaches tend to have the opposite effect and cause students to miss even more school, she said.

Students are more likely to show up when they have positive experiences at schools that create academically and challenging classrooms and a sense of "belonging, connections and support," Chang said.

Betsy Hargrove is superintendent of the Avondale Elementary School District, which serves 6,000 students at nine schools, including Desert Star. About 66% of the district's students are Latino.

The district has recognized that chronic absenteeism became a bigger problem after the pandemic and has taken a collaborative approach to reduce the number of days students miss school, she said.

Each school uses data to track chronic absentee rates at the grade, classroom and individual level, and then school leaders come up with a plan to help students miss fewer days of school, she said.

"You really have to catch it early," Hargrove said.

If you have a student who's already missed four days of school in October, for example, the child could end up being chronically absent. "So you want to change the habit early and address it early and come up with a plan early."

Missing school has a snowball effect, causing them to miss even more school, she said.

"It feeds that cycle of 'I'm disenfranchised from school, I don't know where I am in the curriculum, I'm behind'... so I become further and further disenfranchised from my own education," Hargrove said.

This student missed more than 30 days of school

Remy Ibarra hardly missed school before the pandemic, but last year, when she was in third grade at Michael Anderson School in Avondale, she missed more than 30 days, said her mother, Erica Orona.

Whenever Remy felt sick, Orona said she let her stay home for fear she had COVID-19.

"I wanted to be extra cautious," Orona said.

They were living outside the district, so driving Remy to school sometimes was difficult, Orona said.

During the pandemic, when learning was remote, Remy also got accustomed to just "rolling out of bed and logging onto Zoom and not going out," Orona said.

Erica Orona poses for a portrait at Michael Anderson School on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Phoenix. Orona's daughter attends Michael Anderson School.

Orona said she sometimes felt sorry for her daughter, given all the stress students experienced during the pandemic, so she let her stay home.

"I think I gave in to my daughter and allowed her to miss school probably when I shouldn't have," Orona said.

Remy has missed 13 days so far this year, putting her at risk again of being deemed chronically absent. Most of the missed days were at the beginning of the school year, and lately Remy has been going to school every day.

Orona credits administrators and teachers at Michael Anderson for working with her directly to make her want to go to school.

"They're very responsive but not in a negative way," Orona said. "There has never been any of that guilt or shame that they'd give me. ... It's always like out of concern or what can we do to help, or resources we can help you with?"

A program from the Rosztoczy Foundation that offers full-ride college scholarships to every economically disadvantaged student in Remy's class at Michael Anderson who graduates from high school has motivated her to miss less school, Orona said.

"Knowing that she's going to go to college, her whole attitude has changed. She's seen a bigger picture now and her perspective is totally shifted," Orona said.

Her teachers have also tried to make school more engaging, Orona said. In one class, the teacher used a fun approach to teach a lesson on landforms.

"They did it with food ... you know, the little extra that makes kids want to come back and learn again," Orona said.

This school reduced chronic absenteeism from nearly 40% to 2.5%

Michael Anderson has made reducing the chronic absentee rate a priority, Principal Lori Goslar said.

The school is named after astronaut Michael Anderson, a former student who was killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. The school serves about 750 students, 97% of whom are Latino, Black or Native American, and about 85% of whom are economically disadvantaged.

The school took a group approach after the pandemic to come up with solutions and worked with individual families to reduce the chronic absentee rate at the school, Goslar said.

To reduce the chronic absentee rate, the school doubled up on efforts it was doing before the pandemic and added new initiatives, said Darryl Williford, the assistant principal.

The school added a large sign in the hallway that tracks overall attendance by month.

"Blast off to awesome attendance," the sign reads. The goal is 95% or higher per month.

Williford said he also is making many more home visits. He personally visits the homes of students deemed chronically absent to find out why a student is missing so much school and asks how the school can help.

The school started asking students to track their own attendance on a sheet. That way they know exactly how many days they have missed.

"So that students take ownership of their attendance and understand how important it is for them," Williford said.

The school started handing out certificates for "good to great" attendance to students with three or fewer absences per quarter. Before the pandemic, only students with perfect attendance received certificates.

During the seventh and eighth grade quarterly assembly in March, Goslar read the names of every student with good to great attendance. She invited them to stand at the front of the cafeteria packed with students and parents. About 45 students from each class came up and received a certificate.

"I present to you the students with good to great attendance," Goslar announced over the PA system. The audience erupted in applause.

The changes seem to be working. The school's chronic absentee rate was about 7% before the pandemic. It spiked to nearly 40% during the pandemic, Williford said.

It's down to about 2.5%.

Daniel Gonzalez covers race, equity and opportunity. For tips reach the reporter at or at 602-444-8312. Follow him on Twitter @azdangonzalez.