Copy article link
More than a third of New Mexico’s students are chronically absent from school, a problem some legislators want to try to fix in 2024.
The rate of chronic absenteeism in which students miss than 10% of their school days in New Mexico more than doubled over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and has not bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, according to data prepared by Legislative Education Study Committee analysts and presented to the committee’s lawmakers on Friday.
Lawmakers are trying to figure out what to do about it.
How can we get [students] to care? How can we get them to want to be here? How can we get them to own it? asked Rep. Tanya Mirabal Moya, R-Los Lunas.
About 35% of students in New Mexico were chronically absent the equivalent of missing more than 18 days of school, more than three full weeks the latest Legislative Education Study Committee data shows. That’s up from about 15% during the 2018-19 school year.
The number of chronically absent students in New Mexico is higher among certain demographic groups. For the 2022-23 school year, the rate of chronic absenteeism nears or surpasses 40% among economically disadvantaged, English-learning and disabled students. And more than half of New Mexico’s homeless students are chronically absent.
“The bottom line is that chronic absence is really high across all of our student groups,” said Jessica Hathaway, a senior policy analyst for the legislative committee, during the meeting.
This issue isn’t unique to New Mexico, said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of the Washington-based education think tank FutureEd. After the COVID-19 pandemic left many students disconnected from their school communities and exacerbated many families’ financial woes states across the U.S. are reckoning with students missing more school in the post-pandemic world, with several states experiencing doubling or tripling rates of chronic absenteeism.
New Mexico’s chronic absentee rates are comparable to other states, Jordan told the committee.
Still, undoing those increases in chronic absenteeism, Jordan said, is essential to ameliorating some of the educational, social and emotional tolls of the pandemic on students.
“One of the big costs of the pandemic is that kids lost connection to their friends, to the teachers, to the people they know at school. That was part of the reason they came to school,” Jordan said.
Mirabal Moya, who is a high school science teacher, agreed, saying “a completely different student” returned to school after the early days of the pandemic.
So what can the Legislature do about chronic absenteeism?
Evaluating current attendance policy is on the committee’s
list ahead of the 2024 legislative session, with the goal of understanding the depth of attendance challenges in New Mexico and how the state can better support students and families in getting to school.
Jordan said current best practices call for school and state officials to examine the bigger challenges surrounding students and their families, such as housing insecurity, lack of reliable transportation, physical health and mental wellness.
Instruction related to the “real world” or relevant, linked to students’ cultures and illustrating viable career paths as well as strong connections to teachers, mentors and other school staff also make students more excited to attend school, Jordan said.
Connections with teachers are key, even though there are a lot of demands from parent-teacher conferences to personal responsibilities on teachers’ time, said Rep. Joy Garratt, an Albuquerque Democrat and retired educator, during the meeting.
“There’s no substitute for the personal touch and caring,” Garratt said.
Analysts are slated to continue examining attendance and policy through winter 2023 with the goal of developing recommendations regarding attendance and school engagement for the committee.