Chronic absenteeism has long been a problem and it is unfortunately on the rise. Before the pandemic, 8 million students were deemed chronically absent. But once schools began to close and virtual learning began, quarantines and isolation have led to alarming increases in chronic absences. It’s understandable. Nevertheless, during the 2020-21 school year, at least 10.1 million students missed 10% or more of school days. Recent data from states such as California, Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia reveal that chronic absenteeism has at least doubled in 2021-22 over the past three years. And it has likely doubled nationwide.

Regular attendance ensures students have access to the in-classroom learning that occurs and allows students to build relationships with their peers and adults in schools. Thus, it should come as no surprise that escalating rates of chronic absence coincide with significant drops in student achievement. Long-term trend data from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows the largest drop in decades: 9-year-old students scored 5 points lower in reading and 7 points lower in mathematics compared to their peers in 2020.

While these trends are troubling, the outlook doesn’t have to be. The good news is that federal recovery funds, especially those in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund, allow districts to invest in systemic solutions to reducing chronic absence. These include direct investments in better data systems, attendance definitions and professional development, as well as interventions such as family engagement, mentoring, and community schools.

About 10% of districts have already earmarked ESSER funds directly for programs designed to improve attendance, according to an analysis by FutureEd, independent think tank. And a survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 75% of local education agencies that received ESSER funds reported implementing re-engagement strategies for students with low attendance in the 2021 fiscal year. Although these dollars are expected to expire in the next few years, there are other sources of federal funding to improve attendance.

As districts and states move forward with implementation of ESSER funded programs, there is more that advocates can do at the state and local levels to ensure their schools and districts are investing in and supporting efforts to end chronic absenteeism and the educational inequity that results. Ed Trust and Attendance Works identify these actions in a new guide, 5 Things for Advocates to Know About Chronic Absenteeism. We also encourage you to draw upon these Attendance Works resources:

As an example of a promising practice, a new analysis shows the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE)’s sustained commitment over several years’ time. In spring 2021, Gov. Ned Lamont and CSDE launched the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program (LEAP) with an initial investment of $10.7 million for 15 districts and are now proposing to expand the program with an additional $7 million. At the same time, CSDE established the Center for Connecticut Education Research Collaboration (CCERC) to help the state identify which investments were most worth continuing after COVID-relief funds were spent. CCERC evaluated LEAP after its first year and found that nine months after the first home visit, students in grades P-5 experienced approximately an 8-percentage point increase in attendance, while students in grades 6-12 experienced approximately a 16-percentage point increase. Attendance Works was involved in designing the program model as well as developing and initially providing professional training to equip the LEAP home visitors to conduct the visits.  

This goes to show that improving attendance can be done — and now is the perfect opportunity to do so. Student outcomes will be better off because of it.


Hedy Chang is the founder and executive director of Attendance Works.