Jodi Ellis, principal of Meroby Elementary School in Mexico, and her team used specific strategies to cut the chronic absenteeism rate there nearly in half last year. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Chronic absenteeism in many school districts across the state remains nearly double compared to pre-pandemic levels, prompting administrators to implement an array of strategies to keep students in classrooms.

Overall in the past five years, chronic absenteeism rates peaked in 2021-22 for school districts based in Gray, Bethel, Paris, Freeport, Farmington, Rumford, Rangeley, Lewiston and Auburn.

School districts based in Lisbon, Wales and Poland saw an overall peak during the 2020-21 school year.

Students who miss more than 10% of days, including excused and unexcused absences, in a given school year are considered chronically absent, according to Bear Shea, a Maine Department of Education coordinator within the Office of School and Student Support. That rate seems to be the threshold for when absenteeism starts having an impact on students’ education.

School districts statewide are starting to look at the impacts of chronic absenteeism rather than considering it just a truancy issue, he said. It is a more useful data point for certain indicators than truancy or other mechanisms used in the past.

The state’s overall rate of students who are chronically absent has increased, but not all schools have seen steep increases, according to Shea.


One of the most obvious trends in the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act data found on the state’s Department of Education website is how many districts’ chronic absenteeism rate peaked during the 2020-21 school year compared to the number of districts that had rate peaks during the 2021-22 school year.

Until the 2021-22 school year, the state collected data on absent students quarterly, according to Maine Department of Education Communications Director Marcus Mrowka. Since then, it collects data from schools daily, which makes it difficult to compare chronic absenteeism rates from past years to data from the past couple of school years.

Maine School Administrative Districts 52 in Turner and 58 in Phillips, as well as Regional School Unit 56 in Dixfield, experienced a peak in chronic absenteeism this past school year, based on the past five years of data.

Auburn schools’ rate of chronic absenteeism went from 21% in 2017-18 to 33% in 2021-22, its peak within the past five years, down to 28% in 2022-23.

Because of the difference in the way data started being collected in 2021-22, it is difficult to understand exactly why some districts experienced peak absenteeism rates in different school years, Shea said.

Lewiston schools Superintendent Jake Langlais said he is not as confident in the absenteeism figures for 2020-21 because of the nature of remote learning then. The School Department implemented a hybrid learning model, in which some students learned from home part of the week and in school with smaller groups.


Teachers might have marked a student as attending if they saw their name on the class Zoom call, but the student might have had their computer camera off while doing other things, he said.

He also thinks required quarantines from contact tracing kept a lot of students out of school for extended periods in 2021-22, driving up that chronic absenteeism rate, he said. Students who never missed much school before the pandemic were forced to stay home when they tested positive for COVID-19 or were found to be in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, sometimes staying out up to 14 days.


For the 2021-22 school year, more than one in four students statewide were considered chronically absent, according to Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Count ME In, meaning they missed three or more weeks of school.

She warns that students who miss two or more days during the first month of school are more likely to be chronically absent during the school year.

The pandemic is one of the culprits driving the chronic absenteeism rate up, she said. Quarantine requirements forced many students and staff to stay home. People have developed certain routines after two years of heavily screening their health and staying home for any symptom of illness, she said.

“So, we switched into this mindset of ‘should I go to school in the morning’ during the pandemic,” Anderson said. “And now we need to kind of shift back to say like, ‘no the routine is that you go to school, unless there’s an exception.’”


Another factor driving the lingering high rate in some school districts is lack of transportation, she said. There is a shortage of bus drivers statewide that has plagued school districts. Getting a ride to school is one of the biggest barriers for Maine students, particularly those in more rural areas, she said. If students miss the bus they might not have any other way to get to school.

Another complication of school attendance is the number of children who became accustomed to remote or at-home learning, she said. There are some students who have never been exposed to a normal school year, in which there were no pandemic complications or disruptions.

Then there are complications that predate the pandemic, such as poverty, complications with home life and other factors that act as adversities to student education, she said.

“I mean they’re all really big systems, things that cross beyond just the school or the Department of Education,” she said.

The demographics of students who are chronically absent has also changed nationally, she said. Most students who struggled with attendance before the pandemic faced some sort of adversity. However, now schools are seeing much higher rates of students who do not face adversities struggle with attendance also.


Chronic absenteeism can impact young children’s progress in reading and math, along with social impacts, Shea said. As students get older, chronic absenteeism can be an indicator of a student at risk of dropping out of school or not graduating.


“If students, particularly older students, are missing more school sporadically, that correlates with students that are dropping out or students that aren’t graduating,” she said.

RSU 73 Superintendent Scott Albert in Livermore Falls said chronic absenteeism can make it impossible for students to graduate. Many of them end up dropping out or going to an adult education program.

Teachers must go back over previous lesson plans with students who have been absent a lot. The school also needs to offer extra educational support for those children, he said.

RSU 73’s graduation rate for 2020-21 was 63%, down from 84% the year before, according to state data.

In the 2020-21 school year, the district saw a spike in chronic absenteeism to 51% compared to 16% the year before.

During 2021-22, the district’s chronic absenteeism rate was 32% and its graduation rate was 76% among students who graduated in four years.


One of the barriers to attending school can be poverty and homelessness, according to Albert. Though the district has seen a steady decrease in the rate of students who are economically disadvantaged, that rate for the school district is still more than 10% higher than the state average.

The state’s average rate of students who are economically disadvantaged dropped from 44% in 2017-18 to 35% in 2021-22, according to state data. RSU 73’s percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged also decreased, from 55%  in 2017-18 to 48% for 2021-22 school year.

The days of perfect attendance in Lewiston schools are rare, Langlais said. Getting students to school seems to be less of a priority for some families than others.

Overall chronic absenteeism in Lewiston schools peaked at 46% in 2021-22. The rate was in the 20s pre-COVID. In 2022-23, it dropped to 32%.

Students need continuity and routine to be successful in school and when they are out of school several days it can be difficult to catch up and can result in falling behind their peers, Langlais said.

When students start missing a lot of school it becomes harder for them to be in school, he said. “A kid who misses more than 10% of school has a pretty good probability of missing more than 20% of school.”


He encourages parents to develop daily routines that emphasize eating together, communicating about what happened at school that day and getting adequate sleep, all strategies that help teach them school is a priority, he said.

“Just get into that routine of teaching your kids that we have to be organized and planned and intentional about things that we want to do that can improve our lives — and school and education being one of them,” he said.


Impacts from the pandemic will take several years to subside, Shea said. Looking at attendance daily allows schools to be more proactive in finding students who are at risk of chronic absenteeism and help engage them to prevent them from falling into the category. It is a way districts can bounce back from disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Communicating with students on an individual basis and considering programming that will help connect students to the school are other ways schools can increase student attendance rates, he said.

It is a few of the approaches officials with Count ME In use in schools that are trying to decrease chronic absenteeism.

“Some of it is messaging and a lot of it is building relationships,” Anderson said.


Schools can contract with the organization for a year of coaching and support services to help tackle chronic absenteeism. It also provides some free, virtual trainings and coaching. Much of its funding comes from grants and fundraising.

The organization coaches schools in 15 strategies over the course of a school year to address chronic absenteeism, Anderson said. It takes a three-part approach to helping schools lower that rate — connect, monitor and intervene.

First, school officials must connect with families and build relationships with them and strengthen community partnerships, she said. It helps families and students feel more comfortable to contact school officials when there is an issue.

The second piece is monitoring absenteeism data, she said. It helps schools identify children who are at risk of chronic absenteeism before it becomes an issue.

The last piece is implementing a system of interventions in the school that work for the specific school community, she said. That response will likely look different for school districts with larger or smaller student populations and what resources districts have available to them. She encourages districts to develop teams of staff in schools specifically to address chronic absenteeism issues and challenges.

It is a system that worked well for Meroby Elementary School in Mexico, according to Principal Jodi Ellis. The school cut its chronic absenteeism rate from 66% in 2021-22 to 35% for 2022-23.


When she became principal last year, one of the first things she looked at was chronic absenteeism, she said. Ellis, the school nurse and a school caseworker formed a team and met once a week to discuss absent students. They worked to identify which students were at most risk of being chronically absent.

When any student reached three days absent, whether it was three consecutive days or three cumulative days, they had the student’s teacher reach out to the family and report back to the team, Ellis said. When a student reached five days absent, the team would reach out to the student’s family and develop a plan to ensure that the student could get to school.

At seven days absent, the team would request a meeting with the student’s parents to understand why the student was missing school, she said. At every step, school officials would offer resources and ask families what they could do to help get their child to school.

The approach takes less of a punitive approach to absenteeism and emphasizes communication with families, which better helps address the problem, she said.

It also helped to have a monthly meeting with Count ME In staff to discuss issues and new ways to address those issues, Ellis said. The school also had three family engagement nights when school staff planned activities to get families and students in the school outside the normal school day. It is another approach to get students in school more.

“Any chance we have that we can get parents and families into the building for a positive thing is great,” she said. “I just think it helps make them feel more connected to school — they get to see our faces, they get to talk to us in person and it’s a fun thing.”


The team will continue those efforts and working with Count ME In at Meroby this school year and Ellis will also use the same strategy at Rumford Elementary School this year, where the chronic absenteeism rate was 41% last school year.

RSU 4 in Wales worked with Count ME In in 2019-20 and 2020-21 and still uses the strategies it learned, Assistant Superintendent Kathy Martin said, though it has taken longer for the district to decrease its chronic absenteeism rate.

In 2019-20, the district’s overall chronic absenteeism rate was 16% and increased to 53% in 2020-21. In the past two years it was 33% and 35%, respectively.

The district also uses the Building Assets, Reducing Risks model in the middle school, which uses eight strategies that couple developing relationships and real-time data to help schools improve academic needs, social needs and emotional needs for students, according to information on the Maine Department of Education website. A big piece of that model targets chronic absenteeism, Martin said.

District officials are also looking at attendance data to see if there are trends that can identify when certain months or times of year impact absenteeism more than others, Martin said.

With the strategies the district is using, she said she is hopeful the district will make more gains in lowering its chronic absenteeism rate, but acknowledged it can take three to five years to see significant changes.


It takes about that long for school cultures to change, Anderson said, which is why some schools and districts do not see significant gains in the first few years.


It is hard to predict if chronic absenteeism figures will go down to pre-COVID levels, Anderson said. She said she thinks that how fast the issue can be addressed will largely rely on the systems schools have in place. For some districts, challenges are not as deeply rooted as those in others.

It is difficult to tell how long Maine schools have been experiencing high chronic absenteeism rates because data on the subject was not collected consistently until 2018, according to Anderson. There is not a lot of pre-COVID data that can be compared with post-COVID yearly absenteeism rates.

School climate and culture typically take three to five years to shift, she said. On top of that are the different challenges schools face now compared to five years go.

RSU 9 Superintendent Christian Elkington in Farmington has identified a few key factors he thinks made some parents believe that school is not as important, a mindset that impacts student attendance.

Perhaps the most obvious factor is the pandemic, he said. Some parents felt the district did not have their children’s best interest in mind when it developed rules aimed at reducing student exposure to the virus, which leans into another factor he identified — the country’s political climate.


The political divide has damaged the reputation of governmental organizations such as school districts, he said.

Another factor he considers is the move to online learning platforms. Because students were doing remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic, parents saw school as less important, Elkington said.

“Some students and some parents started to think that school was not as important, a national gift, or a state gift, as it once was, and that kids could easily learn other ways without having to be in school,” he said.

However, attending school in person has more value than just increasing a student’s knowledge in certain subjects,” he said. Students can work through problems better when they are in school and can connect with staff and teachers about areas in which they need help, he said. They also have access to food, ensuring that they are nourished enough for learning. Food accessibility is an issue for many students in his district, he said.

Chronic absenteeism spiked in the district — from 10% in 2019-20 to 22% in 2020-21 to 42% in 2021-22. It dropped to 29% in 2022-23.

Improved attendance makes students feel more successful, Elkington said. They do not have to make up missed schoolwork and it makes them feel better about themselves. Attendance is the key to education, he said.

“Every day a kid is out, they miss something good and it might be something that really interests them and that’s another way to get them to come another day or to realize that school is important and you shouldn’t miss it,” he said.

Schools can provide a lot of resources for students but students cannot access them if they do not come to school, Anderson said. “And so, how do we encourage that attendance and make schools supportive spaces where students feel like they belong, and are learning and growing?”

Former staff writer Vanessa Paolella contributed to this story.

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