Board of Education will again consider chronic absenteeism in school accreditation decisions
Move overrode recommendation from Youngkin administration
A hand sanitizer bottle and tissue box sit underneath a pencil sharpener inside a Virginia classroom. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia will again begin evaluating schools’ efforts to get students into classes regularly as part of school accreditation decisions after the Board of Education rejected a request from Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration.
Last Thursday, with student absences due to illness still high, the Department of Education recommended suspending the use of chronic absenteeism as a factor in accreditation for the second straight year, but the proposal was rejected by the Board of Education in a 6-2 vote.
“I think we are sending very much the wrong signal instead of creating a culture of getting kids back to school,” said board member Bill Hansen, a Youngkin appointee. “I know that the school leaders are just doing herculean efforts, but I think we’re sending the wrong signal here, and I think [there are] some other ways we could go about this.”
Student absences for 10% or more of the academic year — a period equal to 18 or more days — are classified as chronic absenteeism, one of nine factors the state looks at when determining whether a school meets the state’s educational standards.
During the pandemic, more students missed 18 or more days of school than ever before, according to the department.
Last year, the board suspended use of the indicator in accreditation decisions due to COVID-19 and a spike in respiratory illnesses among youth. According to a survey by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, the absenteeism rate has been more than four times higher in the 2022-23 school year than in the two years before the pandemic.
Board members Alan Seibert and Dale Sturdifen, both Youngkin appointees, were the only two members who voted to suspend use of the indicator for a second year.
Seibert said the move wouldn’t relieve school divisions of their responsibilities but argued reducing the number of absences is “a shared responsibility” among numerous organizations.
The superintendents association also backed the recommendation.
“We recognize solving chronic absenteeism requires comprehensive community, parent and school engagement, and we are willing to work with [Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa] Coons and with all of you on the necessary policy tools and resources to truly comprehensively address this issue,” said Scott Brabrand, executive director of the association. “More can and should be done at the state level to help school divisions truly tackle this problem.”
Board members including Anne Holton, an appointee of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said the recommendation appeared to go against the administration’s interest in raising educational standards and expectations.
“This seems like a ‘lowering standards’ move during a year when we’re trying to say ‘we’re back to normal,’” Holton said.
Coons, who assumed the position of superintendent of public instruction a week ago following the resignation of Jillian Balow, said she’s uncertain where the recommendation originated from.
“It’s hard for me to weigh in to say, ‘Yes, I recommend this; no, I don’t,’” she said. “I just know that attendance is absolutely essential as we think about supporting our children.”
On Monday, a request for administration comment on the vote was referred by the governor’s office to the Department of Education.
Some school divisions are attempting to combat chronic absenteeism by conducting weekly attendance team meetings, analyzing the causes of missing school and providing interventions, according to the Department of Education.
In 2018, Virginia began including chronic absenteeism in its accreditation decisions after revising the guidelines the year before. Board President Daniel Gecker, a McAuliffe appointee, said last month that the change initially received pushback, but data later showed that absenteeism rates decreased in parts of Virginia.
“If you think about the kids, we want to get them in school,” Gecker said last Thursday. “We are not asking schools to do something they cannot do. [What] we are emphasizing is the need to focus on this item.”
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