When teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District took attendance on August 15, the first day of school, they discovered that a significant number of students listed on their rolls were not there. According to reports, nearly 50,000 students — approximately 11% of the entire student population — were absent.
Despite improvements, the district is still struggling to return to pre-COVID attendance levels. Last year, with COVID protocols firmly in place, chronic absenteeism skyrocketed to nearly 50%, so officials are attempting to address the issue of absenteeism right out of the gate in 2022.
Such high absenteeism "cannot be the case this year," said new district superintendent Alberto Carvalho, "particularly when we talk about black and brown kids, kids in poverty, English-language learners, kids with disabilities."
"They lost so much ground," he added. "Now is the time to accelerate. That's why I'm talking to parents. You need to have your kids in school. Schools are safe, our protocols and protections are in place. Free breakfast, free lunch. Come to school every single day. This is the time. This is the moment."
COVID cases in the area have dropped dramatically, and students and staff no longer have to test weekly like they did last year, though at-home tests have been furnished for students and families. Masks are strongly encouraged but not required. Mercury News reported anecdotally that students and parents at two district schools largely opted not to wear them last Monday.
Though COVID concerns may have kept some students at home, some in the district believe that absenteeism is caused by other struggles, such as mental illness and issues with transportation and child care for younger siblings.
"Mental health is the first priority," said Marian Chiara, the L.A. county office of education attendance coordinator. "We need to take care of the whole child if we want them to feel supported and successful at school. We can’t just look at the fact that they are chronically absent."
"We have to understand why that is the case," she added, "and work with them before it becomes a problem."
Chiara stated that the district is attempting to pivot away from punishing truancy and toward cultivating a safe and welcoming environment where students want to be.
“We are really trying to move away from punitive measures,” she said.
"We know that kids need to feel successful in order to want to come back to school," she continued. "We want to create a supportive environment for students rather than punish them. Especially after the pandemic, a lot of students are going to have arrested development and behavior issues. Let’s understand that and meet these kids where they are at."