What are school attendance and chronic absenteeism?

Most children miss a few days of school each year without long-term consequences.  Students are usually considered chronically absent if they miss ten percent of instructional days—regardless if the absence is excused or unexcused—or about 18 days in most school districts 10. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 18% of school districts reported an average attendance substantially lower than pre-pandemic times 11. Schools are working to re-engage children who were “lost” (chronically absent) during virtual learning.  When children and adolescents are chronically absent from school, they are academically at risk. Chronic absenteeism can translate into students having difficulty learning to read by the third grade, achieving in middle school, and graduating from high school 12. Students who do not graduate from high school have worse health outcomes and greater health risks as adults than their peers who graduate 13. Chronic absence is especially problematic among students living in poverty: they are most likely to have poor attendance over multiple years and least likely to have the resources to make up for lost time in the classroom. In some communities, chronic absence affects more than one out of four children.14

The terms “school attendance” and “chronic absenteeism” are related and sometimes used interchangeably to talk about the importance of regular school attendance. This playbook uses “school attendance.”

What is the connection between school attendance and health?

Attending school regularly is essential to students gaining the academic, social, and emotional skills they need to succeed. Importantly, school attendance is a leading indicator of child well-being and can reveal that a student needs help long before test scores or grades do.15 Organizations, such as Attendance Works, have helped to identify and communicate the important connection between school attendance and healthier adults:

  1. Poor health and undiagnosed conditions can cause too many absences.  
  2. Chronic absenteeism is linked to poor socioemotional outcomes.
  3. Successful learners are healthier adults.