Nearly half the students at Lincoln Elementary School were chronically absent last year — 46.8 % of Lincoln students were absent from school for 10 % or more of attendance days, the school’s state report card shows.

That is just the most glaring example of a surge in chronic absenteeism that has area school administrators concerned. Like many of the workers who got out of the habit of going to the office during the pandemic, students may be losing the habit of going to the classroom every day.

 Rates of chronic absenteeism, defined by the Illinois State Board of Education as missing 10 % or more of school days, have vastly increased statewide and in area schools compared to before the COVID pandemic and the remote learning of 2020 and 2021.

Across the districts

About 19 % of all Riverside Brookfield High School students were chronically absent for 10 % or more of school days during the 2022-23 school year, according to the recently released Illinois School Report Card. The chronic absenteeism rate at RBHS and most other local schools is below the statewide average of 28.3 %. 

The chronic absenteeism rate at RBHS was essentially unchanged last year from the 19.1 % rate during the 2021-22 school year but is noticeably higher than in pre-pandemic years of 2018-19 (15.1 %) and 2017-18 (11 %).

“Several factors have contributed to the rise, including the ability of students to take up to five mental health days that count against our attendance rate, and we continue to see a higher number of sick day calls out from parents and guardians following the COVID pandemic,” said RBHS assistant principal for student affairs Dave Mannon in an email.

A new state law that went into effect in 2022 allows all students to take five “mental health days,” which must be treated as excused absences. All absences, excused or unexcused, count when determining the chronic absenteeism rate.

Chronic absenteeism was higher last year at Lyons Township High School than it was at RBHS. At LTHS nearly a quarter of students were chronically absent last year. That was a bit of an improvement from the 2021-22 school year when 28.1 % of LTHS students were chronically absent. In the pre-pandemic school year of 2018-19 14.4 % of LTHS students were chronically absent compared with 10.6 % in the 2017-18 school year.

“The degradation of this is outrageous,” said LTHS school board president Dawn Aubert at a recent school board meeting.

But students are coming to school more often this year. The chronic absenteeism rate at LTHS was down to 16 % in the first quarter of the current school year.

Elementary and middle school students are also missing more school than they once did.  In Brookfield, LaGrange Park School District 95 20.3 % of students were chronically absent last year, up from just 10.7 % in the pre-pandemic school year of 2018-19.  

In Riverside Elementary School District 96, 15.1 % of students were chronically absent last year, up from nine % in the 2018-19 school year. 

Chronic absenteeism has also risen sharply at Komarek School, rising to 24.6 % last year from 10.2 % in 2018-19.

At Congress Park Elementary School, chronic absenteeism rose to 19 % last year from 7.2 % in the 2018-19 school year. It was zero in the 2017-18 school year. 

At most area schools, Hispanic students were more likely to be chronically absent that other students. At Lincoln school, where 69.4 % of all students are Hispanic, 50 % of Hispanic students were chronically absent, compared with 35.8 % of white students last year. 

Komarek was an exception. At Komarek, Black students were the most likely to be chronically absent with 33.3 % of Black students being chronically absent last year compared to 25.3 % of Hispanic students and 20.3 % of white students. 

Changing culture

Some school administrators say that the culture around school attendance has changed. While students used to be expected to attend school unless they were noticeably sick during the pandemic families were encouraged to keep kids home from school at even the slightest sign of illness. Remote learning may have also encouraged the perception that school attendance was not crucial.

“Yes, it was COVID, yes it was illness, but it was something more,” said Martha Ryan-Toye, superintendent of Riverside Elementary School District 96 in explaining the rise to her school board. Ryan-Toye said District 96 principals made it a point this year at parents night to emphasize the importance of attendance.

Ryan-Toye said that the extreme caution during the pandemic of not sending a kid to school just because she has a sniffle or a sneeze is no longer necessary or advisable.

“A sniffle is OK,” Ryan-Toye told her school board at a September meeting. “We were saying [during the pandemic] no, a sniffle is not even OK, a sneeze is not OK. You know what, a sniffle and a sneeze is OK. Not a fever, not vomiting. So, we’re trying to shift our own messaging a little bit and that’s tricky.”

LTHS Superintendent Brian Waterman said that some students miss school on some days because they are involved in out-of-school activities such as club sports.

“We really have students who are busy with out-of-school activities,” Waterman said.

But area school administrators are trying to emphasize the importance of being in school. You can’t learn if you’re not in class is the message.

RBHS is using a multi-pronged collaborative approach to try to cut down on chronic absenteeism.

“We utilize automated messages sent to students and their family contacts when an unverified absence is recorded,” Mannon said in an email. “Office letters are sent home for cumulative absences at or above five and ten. The Deans hold weekly student conferences to clear up unexcused absences, and they also attend weekly small team intervention meetings in the Student Services Office. In addition, we have partnered with our Regional Office Of Education West 40 and currently have two student advocates in the building who managed a caseload of sixty students.”