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Raising the risk of poor school performance and dropping out, more than 8 million children in the United States miss 15 or more school days each year. That’s approxmately one in every six students.
This hidden education crisis is even more widespread for families living with incomes below the federal poverty line, with the percentage of students missing a month or more of school nearly doubling to one in every three.
Why is this happening, and what can be done?
The perfect storm for absenteeism varies but, as an educator, the most common factors I’ve seen that fuel chronic absenteeism are: student health, too much time spent on passive technology (video games and other screen time), lack of internet access at home for homework and positive connections to the world, eating, physical activity, emotional intelligence for connectedness, and being unable to access the level of learning (instruction that is too high or too low).
Schools play critical roles in promoting the health and safety of young people and helping them establish lifelong healthy behaviors that can address these issues.
The first is student health. Nationwide, parents struggle with getting their kids access to the health care they need at the right time and right place, at a cost they can afford. Many children living in poverty have inadequate health insurance, live in medically underserved communities known as ‘health care deserts,’ and have limited access to medical professionals who can address their basic health needs.
A high percentage of students in underserved communities are on Medicaid — more than 20 million kids don’t have adequate access to sorely needed health care basics — but Medicaid only has a 53 percent acceptance rate in major U.S. metro markets. As a result of poor access to health care, families are increasingly reliant on costly urgent care and emergency-room visits to manage health care issues.
When there’s a lack of social support — whether communal, societal or familial — it can fuel difficulty adhering to healthy behaviors and trigger psychological processes, such as depression, and biological processes, such as increased inflammation and reduced immune functions. These conditions keep students out of school and can result in poor academic performance. It’s essential that we draw national attention to these issues.
Then there’s nutrition. Students eat as many as two out of three meals at school, making schools the epicenter of student health needs. Insufficient food intake and deficits in specific nutrients (e.g., vitamins A, B6, B12, C, folate, iron, zinc and calcium) are associated with lower academic performance, higher rates of absenteeism, a greater likelihood of repeating a grade, and less ability to focus on learning.
Good nutrition is vital to concentration and focus. Free and reduced-price breakfast, lunch and snacks are offered to families who qualify. School districts sometimes also offer free food pantries for nutrition at home, clothes and shoe closets, and other basic necessities to help struggling families. The USDA’s School Breakfast Program is linked to increased academic achievement and standardized test scores, reduced absenteeism and improved cognitive performance.
Meeting these basic needs can help students learn and grow beyond the school day. Offering support at home can also help a student feel less ostracized from his or her peers and contribute to overall good health.
Internet availability is crucial as well. There is a consistent pattern of better performance in reading, mathematics and science for students with internet access at home. Home internet is also connected to improved student knowledge of information and communication technologies.
Access is influenced by several factors, including socioeconomic background such as parents’ educational attainment and family income. Organizations such as EducationSuperHighway, the State Educational Technology Directors Association and other local initiatives help bring internet access to students and their families (both inside and outside the classroom) at lower costs.
Geographic location also affects students’ internet access at home, with students in remote areas having significantly less access than those in suburbs, towns or cities. In offering programs and services to expand internet access beyond the classroom, schools can further their ability to provide more resources and help close the economic gap as a predictor for school success.
When it comes to communication between parents and schools, the positive relationship between parental involvement and student performance is well documented, but only four in 10 families with school-aged children report having been contacted by their school district. Parent-teacher communication helps shape the content of conversations between parent and student, opening up a dialogue about how support at home helps students excel in the classroom. Beyond parent-teacher communication, schools can offer programs and activities to get the entire family involved after school. Examples include community theater events, library excursions and sports activities.
Students who struggle academically often feel that the instruction is not targeted to their learning levels. When teachers are unable to understand and accommodate the needs of diverse students through differentiated instruction, students fall further behind. This doesn’t have to be the reality.
Schools can play a unique role in helping parents solve problems by providing services like basic health care five days a week and keeping open lines of communication.
By offering these resources at the local level, schools can help elevate entire communities. It all starts with recognizing the resources around us and bringing them into our education centers to reach the people who need them most.
Raquel Antunez is vice president of education markets at Hazel Health. Her experience in the education sector includes teaching, serving as a school principal and director, and leading district implementation for English language learners and struggling learners.