Tens of thousands of San Diego Unified students have missed so many school days they’re now considered chronically absent, which poses a threat to their learning and to the district’s financial resources.

This year’s chronic absenteeism rate among students has more than doubled since the year prior to the pandemic. District officials want to know what’s driving the issue and have assigned family service assistants to do home visits to find out why some children are missing school. 

Why this matters

A growing number of San Diego Unified students are considered chronically absent this year, alarming district leaders. Student attendance not only affects the district’s budget. It also puts youth at greater risk of truancy and academic failure when they miss school.

In fact, the district’s chronic absenteeism rate among students is “very high,” the most severe level as defined by the state. Of the nearly 98,000 students enrolled at San Diego Unified, more than 27,700 – or 28.5% – were chronically absent as of January. 

That number is up from October when almost 18,000 students – or 19.2% of all students – were considered chronically absent. 

Students are considered chronically absent if, after 31 days of being enrolled, they have missed at least 10% of instructional days enrolled, according to the California Department of Education. Chronic absenteeism rates above 20% are considered “very high,” 10-20% are “high,” 5-10% are “medium,” and rates at or below 2.5% are “low” or “very low.” 

The Department of Education considers a significant decline or increase among chronic absenteeism rates when there’s at least a 3% change. Excused absences are labeled as absences when calculating the average daily attendance. 

The numbers are even greater among students with Individualized Education Plans, commonly called IEPs, who receive special education services and make up more than 15,500 of total students enrolled in the district. More than a third of these students – or 37.8% – were considered chronically absent in January, up from 26.1% in October. 

African American students, including those with disabilities, have been within the top three racial and ethnic groups that have chronically missed the most school days on average from the 2018-19 year, when they missed 28.7 days on average, to 2021-22, when they missed 35.7 days, according to state data. 

Chronic absenteeism among San Diego Unified students is a much more significant problem than prior to the pandemic. Nearly 16,000 students attending both traditional and charter schools in the district – or 12.4% – were chronically absent during the 2018-19 school year.

That year, students missed an average of 29 days of school and about 41% of absences were unexcused. The chronic absenteeism rate among students with disabilities that year was about 20%, with students missing an average of 33 days. 

San Diego Unified’s increases in chronic absenteeism reflect statewide trends but are far more severe than what’s happening nationally. During the 2021-22 school year, the rate of chronic absenteeism among students in California was about 30%, nearly three times greater than the rate of about 11% in 2016-17, according to state data. Nationally, the rate of chronic absenteeism was 17% during the 2021-22 school year, up from 16% in 2015-16, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The trends are alarming to district officials. 

Students that miss school are at greater risk of truancy, doing poorly academically and dropping out of school, according to the district. Those students, especially early learners, are likely to fall behind, struggle to catch up and want to give up on school.

“It’s hard enough to stay abreast when you’re showing up every day for school, but imagine missing four days and having to keep up with schoolwork,” said Cody Petterson, a San Diego Unified trustee. “Missing that instructional time is a very serious educational challenge for all students.”

Petterson said that at Torrey Pines Elementary, where his children attend school and where he’s a member of the school site council, school leaders have noticed rising absentee rates among youth who didn’t meet standards for the Smarter Balanced test, a statewide English and math test given annually to students in third-through-eighth and 11th grades. 

The correlation between chronic absenteeism and test performance played out in the 2021-22 school year. More than 50% of white, Asian and Filipino students, groups with the lowest chronic absenteeism rates, met or exceeded state standards in both English and math. In all other student groups, where rates of absenteeism were much higher, less than 50% of students met or exceeded standards, except in English, where 53% of Native American and Alaska Native students met or exceeded expectations. 

So far, the district has identified some common factors among students in the district who are chronically missing school, including being economically disadvantaged, homeless or in special education, said Sabrina Bazzo, a San Diego Unified trustee. 

Many factors can contribute to students missing too many days of school, including mental health challenges, food insecurity, transportation issues or contracting COVID-19 or another serious illness, Bazzo told inewsource. “One other thing we’re doing as far as the transportation issues, is providing youth opportunity passes and that’s to give free mass transit for our students that could benefit from having a bus pass,” Bazzo said.

Failing to get students to school affects more than just those students’ learning. 

Like most school districts, San Diego Unified’s budget amount depends on students’ average daily attendance. For every student absence, the district says it loses about $32 a day. Conversely, a 1% increase in attendance rates would result in an additional $6 million in revenue. 

School districts also receive funding that depends on student enrollment, but the student population at San Diego Unified – now about 97,755 – has been on the decline since at least the 2014-15 school year when enrollment was almost 130,000. 

Petterson said he hopes there will be legislation to allow the district to keep its funding, regardless of attendance and absentee trends. 

Educators struggling to get their students to school can contact a family service assistant to conduct a home visit, said Sarah Ott, executive director for the special education department at San Diego Unified, during a district community advisory committee meeting on Jan. 12. She said every school cluster has one.

“They’re meeting with families and really talking through how to best get support for students coming to school,” Ott said.

Board members Petterson and Bazzo said the district sees tracking absenteeism as a way to identify students in need of interventions and families in need of help, and educators as well as families should not hesitate to reach out to their schools for help. 

“The schools want to work with you and want to figure out these problems,” Bazzo said.

Correction: Jan. 25, 2023
An earlier version of this story misspelled Sabrina Bazzo’s last name.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Andrea Figueroa BriseñoEducation reporter

Andrea Figueroa Briseño is an investigative reporter at inewsource and a corps member for Report For America, a national service program that tasks journalists to report on undercovered communities and issues. She covers education and focuses her reporting on Latino students and families who are part...