Naalehu Elementary, a rural school near the southern tip of Hawaii island, has long struggled with chronic absenteeism, with as many as 40% of its students missing 15 or more days out of the school year in recent years.

That rate has spiked to 53% this year after the pandemic forced schools to go online and educators have struggled to reach students, especially in remote areas, due to scant broadband internet access, limited technology and other hurdles.

The Hawaii Department of Education defines chronic absenteeism as 15 or more days missed out of the school year. Officials are currently pegging students as “high risk” for chronic absenteeism based on the percent of school days missed so far in the 171-day instructional calendar year: 8.3% is their threshold.

Naalehu School on the island of Hawaii during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Serving 380 students, Naalehu Elementary is located near the southern tip of Hawaii island. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

While there is no real “penalty” for students who are chronically absent, the Board of Education made clear to DOE officials in an October memo they want the data carefully tracked by student subgroup to determine whether it’s the most vulnerable kids who are more absent.

“We’ve always struggled with attendance because they live six miles from the bus stop,” Naalehu Elementary principal Darlene Javar said, adding that “everything is compounded” with the pandemic.

Naalehu, which serves roughly 380 students in grades pre-K-6, is not alone. At Keonepoko Elementary, which is within the same Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex area, 314 students, or 60%, were pegged as high risk for chronic absenteeism. At Keaau Middle, it was 441 students, or 63%.

Statewide, 31,795 students — or 20% of all attending public schools — were at high risk for chronic absenteeism as of late February. It’s an increase from a statewide average of 15% in recent years, according to the state Department of Education.

The percentage was even higher for non-native English speakers at 31% and economically disadvantaged students at 29%.

The issue of chronic absenteeism is reverberating across school districts nationwide, with some students missing up to half of the year due to the disruptions of the pandemic, said Hedy Chang, executive director of the national nonprofit, Attendance Works.

“This is a red alert for me,” Chang said. “Before, I would see a handful of kids who missed that much of school, but now it’s a much larger group. We’re going to have to go from individual interventions to maybe programmatic interventions.”

Missing too much school can set a student up for hardship down the road, starting in the earliest grades. Kindergartners and first-graders who are frequently absent may not be proficient in reading by the third grade. In high school, chronic absenteeism can be a predictor of dropping out of school altogether.

“The earlier it begins, and isn’t resolved, the harder it is to ameliorate,” Chang said.

Hawaii’s statistics show that remote and rural schools plus those serving low-income students are at higher risk of students being chronically absent.

Complex area-wise, the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa district on Hawaii island and Nanakuli-Waianae district on Oahu’s rural leeward side had the highest percentage of high risk absences, at 44%, compared with the lowest of 11% in the Aiea-Moanalua-Radford complex area in central Oahu.

Pre-pandemic, 15% of Hawaii’s students were recorded as chronically absent, a statistic that state education officials had hoped to lower to 9% by 2020 under an ambitious strategic plan.

Taking Attendance Online

Historically, lack of transportation and lack of access to proper health care are among the reasons kids in remote areas of the state have missed a lot of school.

But new challenges posed by the pandemic have exacerbated the problem.

In a side note in a data dashboard tracking this metric, the DOE says factors contributing to high student absenteeism this year include: kids from dual households who might not be able to attend school when staying at the out of district household; the need to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure; a need to stay at a home that is not their own; language barriers; and accessing devices and Wi-Fi.

Lanai High and Elementary School school bus.
A lack of transportation options for students in rural areas contributes to chronic absenteeism. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Naalehu Elementary, which has many Native Hawaiian and Micronesian students, struggles with poverty and a lack of resources, according to its principal.

As of Feb. 26, according to the latest Hawaii Department of Education data, 53% of Naalehu Elementary’s students, or 204 kids, were at “high risk” of chronic absenteeism for having missed 8.3% or more of the school year so far.

“There isn’t internet access in every location, and even with (mobile hotspots) and devices, internet consistency still varies,” Javar said. “We have been trying to work with our parents in a multitude of ways.”

While schools have been transitioning back to in-person learning, Naalehu is only at half capacity nearly halfway into the fourth quarter because of the school’s decision to impose a strict 6-foot spacing rule to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Thus, the school is still providing textbooks, workbooks and sending home computers when it can. Administrators hand out learning packets every two weeks; they even send home dirt so kids who can’t access on-campus learning have tactile material to work with for projects (most live near lava, said Javar).

The DOE has issued broad guidance to schools on how to track attendance this year, while acknowledging “there is no one-size-fits-all” method since all 257 schools have been given leeway in choosing whether to continue all-virtual instruction, opt for a blended in-person, virtual model or revert to full in-person instruction.

The DOE’s suggestions include minimum logged-in time requirements and assignment and task completion within a specified time frame.

Grade level also determines how attendance is recorded: a single daily attendance is taken for elementary students while attendance for secondary students is measured by whether they attend “a majority of their courses” for the day.

Javar said her criteria for recording attendance among students connecting online is to make sure that they are actively engaged in their Google classrooms. That means not just logging on, but participating and showing their faces on the screen, among other things.

“It’s not easy but I have to set some parameters to increase the attendance,” Javar said. “The irony is, attendance is easy to track,” she added, noting that if a student is present or visible in a virtual classroom, they are automatically recorded into the system.

“We’re focusing not just on attendance but on participation and learning,” she said.

Javar also stressed that attendance shouldn’t be the sole predictor of a child’s educational experience at this time, since the learning setting has so many variables. She believes the level of participation and engagement are more active predictors of whether a child is getting a beneficial education.

To help those students who have trouble accessing the traditional classroom, her school has turned to community “learning hubs” to reach students and deployed staff to tutor kids in their own homes.

“There’s absences and there’s learning,” she said. “I can say we’re desperate to reach every single child. We keep trying and trying and trying.”

“We have evolved over the course of the year in how we monitor things and continue to try and support our kids to learn,” she added.

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