Monday, Feb. 26, 2024|
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Hawaii Dept. of Education
The state Department of Education reported chronic absenteeism, or students missing 15 or more days of school, more than doubled for the state during the 2021-22 school year.
Prior to the pandemic, chronic absenteeism averaged 15% per year in Hawaii, but rose to 18% in 2020-21 and to 37% in 2021-22 when students returned in-person.
“There was a lot of isolation and quarantining going on that year,” said Deputy Superintendent Heidi Armstrong during the Board of Education meeting held Sept. 15. “We had the spikes from delta and omicron, and people were still very hesitant and leery about going out in general.”
Elementary and mixed K-12 schools reported the highest rates of chronic absenteeism at 41%, compared to middle and high schools, which reported 33%. Armstrong referred to the increase in elementary absences as an anomaly.
“Typically, elementary had a lower chronic absenteeism rate, as well as high schools, and that’s reflected a little bit differently during the year we were affected by the pandemic,” she said, speculating there may have been other, more frequent illnesses among younger age groups like chickenpox and the flu.
Another factor could be the strict quarantine guidelines for unvaccinated individuals. Many of those in the elementary age group were not qualified to be vaccinated at the start of the 2021-22 school year, with vaccine approval for the 5-11 age group coming in November 2021.
DOE guidelines required unvaccinated students to quarantine for 10 days following each instance of close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, meaning two instances of close contact would qualify an unvaccinated student as chronically absent.
Vaccinated students were still required to quarantine for 10 days if they tested positive, but fully vaccinated students and staff who had close contact with a person with COVID-19 and were asymptomatic were not required to quarantine or test negative.
“Those who were isolating, or those who were under quarantine, were still marked as absent,” confirmed Armstrong.
The Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa complex reported the highest rates of chronic absenteeism on Hawaii Island, with roughly 60% of students missing 15 or more days of school, the second highest in the state.
“A number of our students, who live in our geographical area, live in multifamily homes,” said Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Superintendent Stacey Bello. “As a result, when one individual in the household was not feeling well or was confirmed COVID-positive, all students in the household needed to stay home for a designated length of time. In some situations, these instances occurred multiple times during the school year.”
Bello added that those with any COVID-like symptoms also were recommended to stay home.
“The Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area has faced many challenges over the years with lava inundation, hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bello said. “We continue to monitor student attendance on all school campuses and are hopeful that it will improve as we transition back to normalcy.”
The demographics of the Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa district may have also played a part in the chronic absenteeism rates.
“Our Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander subgroups had the highest chronic absenteeism rates in 2021-22,” said Armstrong, adding the group also had the highest rates since the 2013-14 school year. “I think you can also see that reflected in our complex areas that have the higher rates of chronic absenteeism.”
The rates were even higher for schools like Naalehu Elementary, which reported a chronic absenteeism rate of more than 80% of students missing 15 or more days of school.
Armstrong said additional factors contributing to absences may include family issues, such as taking care of siblings or relatives, disengagement from school, bullying and harassment, and transportation issues.
“There’s a different intervention for a transportation issue than there is for a student who is disengaged,” she said regarding potential solutions. “The more information we have, the better.”
Several board members at the Sept. 15 meeting called for additional data related to chronic absenteeism to find potential solutions.
“We might concentrate on the wrong problem by not understanding the differences,” cautioned BOE member Lauren Moriarty.
Certain mitigation measures are being taken by the DOE to bring the rates down for the 2022-23 school year, including a change in quarantine guidelines, lowering the isolation recommendation from 10 to five days for those who test positive.
“We’re moving more towards digging deeper into what is the reason for the absence,” said Armstrong, adding the DOE has already noticed a return to normalcy for this year. “Right now, we’re at 1.4%. Kids are very happy to be back and to have a sense of normalcy.”
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