Student absenteeism high as Oregon districts attempt to normalize going to school every day

Oregon students appear to be making some progress, but state and local education leaders are concerned about high absentee rates amid new data showing a sharp decline in regular school attendance among Oregon students since the pandemic.

The number of Oregon kids regularly attending school last year dropped by nearly 20 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels, according to new data from the Oregon Department of Education. About 62% of Oregon students attended 90% or more of school days during the 2022-23 school year and nearly 40%, on average, missed at least 16 days out of 160 or more days. During the 2018-19 school year, about 80% of students attended class at least 90% of the year. Students who attend at least 90% of the time are considered to have regular attendance. 

Absenteeism rates are highest in kindergarten, early elementary grades and among high school seniors, according to state data and the districts. Educators say absences in the younger grades can have the most impact. Research shows students who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by third grade, making them four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers. 

The data was released as part of the Oregon Department of Education’s At-A-Glance Profiles of districts, which combine state assessment test scores with other district and school health measures, such as the number of experienced teachers, school mental health staff and librarians in buildings, and the number of high school freshman who are on track to graduate in four years. 

The latest profiles show that steep declines in student comprehension in core subjects during the pandemic are beginning to level off, as well as the number of students on track to graduate in four years. It also shows that schools are hiring more teachers and behavioral health staff to help with the recovery. But the most unmovable setback since COVID hit seems to be regular school attendance, especially for kids in the earliest grades

“We know that students aren’t benefiting from instruction when they are not in the classroom, so this is a serious concern for Oregon’s educators,” officials at the Oregon Department of Education said in a news release. Agency officials and district leaders have different hypotheses as to why regular attendance has declined so sharply.

‘Financial burdens’

Charlene Williams, director of the Oregon’s state education agency, said she’s hearing from districts that the rise in chronic absenteeism is due in part to students missing school days if they or a family member get COVID, as well as the loss of pandemic-era financial and housing support for families.

“Those financial burdens are landing back in the laps of some of our families, and they are struggling once again in some cases with food insecurity and finding stable housing and those kinds of things,” Williams said in a news conference prior to the data release.

The Capital Chronicle reached out to dozens of superintendents across the state, who echoed a common theme – the pandemic changed families’ attitudes about compulsory school attendance. 

Tom Rogozinski, superintendent in the Warrenton Hammond School District on Oregon’s northwest coast, said the increase in absenteeism stems in part from students or family members getting COVID. But he said the biggest change is a shift in how families and students perceive the responsibility of attending school regularly.

“Reentry to school every day, five days a week, has been an adjustment for kids and families and for whatever reason it feels like that old given – that we’re going to school everyday – is not as fully entrenched,” he said.

More than one-third of students in kindergarten, first grade and second grade in the district were chronically absent last year, mirroring statewide absenteeism rates. 

Rogozinski said about 95% of absences in his district are excused. Big districts have teams that visit homes to increase attendance but Warrenton Hammond is a small district. Still, he said teachers and principals visit homes when a student has missed a significant chunk of school time to try to get them back to class. 

“There used to be more force with truancy laws to render a fine or a judgment,” Rogozinski said, noting that students no longer face those kinds of consequences.

Several superintendents bemoaned the Legislature’s decision in 2021 to end laws allowing districts to fine parents, or to have judges and truancy courts mandate students attend school, if they’d missed a significant number of days. 

George Mendoza, superintendent in the La Grande School District in eastern Oregon said in an email that using judges and fines was not “a top tactic or strategy” for getting kids to school but that without it, “it does erode our highest levels of accountability.”

During the latest legislative session, an 18-member taskforce was created to submit by September 2024 alternative ideas for boosting student attendance statewide.

Rebuilding relationships

In Hermiston, Superintendent Trisha Mooney said teachers and coaches in her district are trying to rebuild relationships and connections with kids that remote learning impaired. 

“Some kids will show up for one thing — for band, a sport, a club — that gets them coming to school. That’s the connector that gets them building those habits,” she said. “Kids have to learn that it’s important to be part of something bigger than you, and that others are relying on you to show up. That other people are counting on you.”

Administrators from the Central School District in Independence, the Beaverton School District and Willamina School District in Yamhill County said boosting regular attendance was a top priority this school year. 

Those districts and others are using resources linked to an initiative called Every Day Matters, spearheaded by the state department of education and funded with $6 million by the Legislature in 2016, to boost attendance. The initiative involves officials meeting with students and families to address the root causes of chronic absenteeism. Funding was paused at the onset of the pandemic but resumed this year. Districts can use the money to hire community-school liaisons, advocates and counselors to work more closely with students and families to get kids back in class.

In the Bethel School District in Eugene, superintendent Kraig Sproles said part of its strategy to boost attendance has been hiring more mental health professionals. 

“We have seen an increase in the number of students seeking support for issues related to anxiety and depression. We know that mental health issues not only impact student learning, but also can impact school attendance. While we have always had students who struggle with mental health, the number and severity of the issues have greatly increased,” he said in an email.

In the past, mostly older students suffered anxiety and depression but he said district officials are now seeing younger students also struggle.

Graduation rates

The percentage of ninth graders on track to graduate within four years is nearing pre-pandemic levels. Statewide, about 84% of the class of 2026 is headed towards graduation. 

Several districts, including Bend-La Pine, Medford, Springfield, South Umpqua and Lebanon, made significant gains in ninth grade on-track performance. Dan Farley, assistant superintendent of the education department’s research and data accountability office, said school administrators in those districts created teams of counselors and teachers to review student data and target gaps in credit attainment and attendance to get students on track. 

Some schools also hired “cultural liaisons” who speak other languages than English to work with students and their families to make sure they knew about credit and graduation requirements. Some districts also offered more classes and programs to count toward graduation requirements, as well as expanded after-school tutoring and summer school options. 

“They’re either expanding, adding or shifting to give students different and additional opportunities to learn,” Farley said.

About 56% of Oregon’s class of 2021 enrolled in college within 16 months of graduating, down from 63% before the pandemic. That follows a national trend: Nationwide, about 62% of 2021 high school graduates enrolled in college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During the last decade, undergraduate enrollment in colleges nationwide has declined 15%. 

Williams, the new education director, said the Oregon’s  Higher Education Coordinating Commission has found that tighter budgets and soaring prices in recent years and the high costs of tuition has affected college enrollment rates. 

“Students just really wanted to put college on pause, you know, while they could figure out their lives,” Williams said.


Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.