How a rise in Virginia student absences may impact school ratings

Virginia public school officials say an increasing number of students are missing many days of class, an issue that may have consequences for several schools’ accreditation.

In early April, the state’s Board of Education voted against a proposal to suspend the use of attendance as a factor for accreditation, enabling the state to use attendance as a factor for its school review process. It will mark the first time since the pandemic that attendance is used to evaluate schools.

The change may negatively impact schools’ accreditation statuses, Northern Virginia school officials say, which in turn could alter public perception of schools. The state uses a series of factors to determine accreditation status, and schools that aren’t fully accredited have to work with the state to resolve any lingering issues.

About a quarter of schools in Virginia have reported a chronic absenteeism rate above 25% this year, according to survey data collected by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. Scott Brabrand, the organization’s executive director, said using chronic absenteeism as a factor for accreditation for this school year “will simply push more schools into being accredited with conditions.”

Students who miss 10% or more of a school year are considered to be chronically absent. Experts say chronically absent students are more likely to struggle academically, be suspended and ultimately drop out of school.

“More and more families are experiencing chronic absenteeism for a variety of reasons,” said Marie Lemmon, principal at Bailey’s Upper Elementary School in Fairfax County. “As school officials, as school principals, we really can help communicate to families the importance of being in school. At the same time, we don’t really have a lot of leverage to enforce or make that happen.”

School systems across Northern Virginia say their data resemble national trends. At a school board work session last week, Loudoun County Public Schools reported it’s not on track to decrease its percentage of chronic absenteeism from 13%, its data from the 2021-22 school year. It aimed to be at 12.5% in 2023. In Prince William County, nearly 25% of students missed 10% or more of the first 90 days of the school year, according to county data.

There are numerous reasons for the spike in student absences, Lemmon said. In some cases, students miss class because of an actual illness, or keep their child home if they show any symptoms because they’re afraid of a school calling them to pick their student up.

“Parents are so fearful, including myself, that if they even show signs of a stomachache, that they’re going to be sent home and rendered COVID positive,” said Kim Putens, whose son graduated from a Fairfax County high school last year. “Some of that has quieted down, but there is still that fear.”

Babur Lateef, chairman of the Prince William County School Board, said during the pandemic, some students got jobs and never returned to class. Students’ poor mental health also plays a role, he said.

“We’re seeing mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, suicide attempts all increasing as well,” Lateef said. “There’s an apathy as well toward school that we are working on since the pandemic.”

Prince William County, Lateef said, has always had attendance officers in schools, but is now assigning a staff member to follow up with families and find out why their students aren’t in school.

“We’ve also been much more strict on your excused absences,” Lateef said. “We want to make sure that your absence is truly excused.”

Despite those efforts, Lateef said the state’s second-largest school system hasn’t “made a big dent in improving the chronic absenteeism.”

In some cases, Lemmon said, students miss school to go on vacation, because it’s often easier for families to travel during off-peak times.

“They will travel to visit family in another country, or take that Disney vacation,” Lemmon said. “If you have vacation scheduled, and then your child’s got a real illness, and then maybe you’ve missed a few days for a competitive sport, then now you’re really in that realm of 18 days [missed].”

At Bailey’s Upper Elementary, Lemmon said an office staff member ensures attendance is uploaded every day, and in the beginning of the year, she meets with a team weekly to review students who were chronically absent the year before. But there are many things schools can’t control regarding absenteeism.

And for schools that are not fully accredited, Lemmon said, “It makes the community seem like we’re not supporting an effective school. And I think those are opinions and assumptions that most people have with just the term accreditation.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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