Florida might have been among the first states to reopen its schools following the COVID-19 outbreak, but the state is exhibiting symptoms of a national plague that has worsened since the virus’s debut: school absenteeism.
That’s the news that the House Education Subcommittee received during a presentation from three consultants and a Florida Department of Education official this week.
Republican Rep. Dana Trabulsy of Fort Pierce noted that 30% of the state’s students — that’s about 987,000 students — are chronically absent from school. That’s broadly defined as when kids miss 10% of school — or 18 days a year — of the prescribed 180 days that make an academic year.
“This is not a small number,” Trabulsy said, noting that she didn’t know about how bad it was until about 16 months ago.
The House Education Quality Subcommittee Chairwoman noted that chronic absenteeism is linked to poor outcomes in the most basic building blocks of life — starting with graduating from high school.
The situation is grim, said Hedy Chang, founder and Executive Director of Attendance Works, an initiative aimed at addressing the underlying causes of school absenteeism.
More than 70% of Florida schools have 20% of their students meeting the definition of chronically absent, and that affects the entire school, Cheng said.
“With the churn happening in that situation, the impact on both teaching and learning is affecting all kids,” Chang said.
Chang’s group provided lawmakers with statistics on schools in their area and some of them were aghast at what they read.
Democratic Rep. Joe Casello of Boynton Beach noted that a charter school in his city, Quantum High School, had an 88% absentee rate, 15% proficiency in reading and graduation rate at 23%.
“How do we intervene in a charter school?” Casello asked. “And the bigger question is how do they keep the charter recognized?”
Trabulsy noted that some schools are even worse off. The research found some of the state’s schools had 98% of their school population defined as chronically absent.
Discussion ensued about how schools count absences can vary widely from school to school and how data collection needs to be standardized so education officials can get a better grasp on the size and scope of the problem. Trabulsy alluded to legislation that may be forthcoming.
Rep. Jennifer Canady said that perhaps children and parents don’t feel like school has a lot to offer.
“We need to continue to make school a place that kids don’t want to miss and parents are clear about the positive, important things that happen there every day,” said the Lakeland Republican.
Trabulsy said the pandemic certainly heightened awareness of the problem that she believes has been on the rise for years before this.
“Kids were displaced during the pandemic and we still don’t know where they are,” she said.