Trauma, poverty, COVID-19 causing high rates of chronic absenteeism in Kentucky

Published 3:22 pm Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Sarah Ladd

Kentucky Lantern


The number of Kentucky youth who are chronically absent from school skyrocketed during the 2022-2023 school year.

The reasons for chronic absenteeism are interconnected and complicated — and the negative fallout potential is widespread, from mental health to the economy.

Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) staff and child welfare advocates point to the COVID-19 pandemic, and its ongoing fallout, as a key culprit in this crisis.

Building a habit of absenteeism in school carries over into work, said Florence Chang, a KDE program consultant.

“Chronically absent students, high school students, … are likely to be significantly higher in absences from work,” she said. “There’s some habits there built up that the same people who miss school are the same people that may call in and miss work.”

Absenteeism can also hurt a child’s ability to get a high school diploma or higher education.

“Even if a student were to drop out at 18 and pursue a GED, their earning power with the GED is not the same as it is with a high school diploma,” said Christina Weeter, KDE division director.

Child welfare advocates are keen to turn the trend around. They say doing so starts with parental communication and investments in comprehensive community services that serve kids outside the classroom.

By the numbers 

In the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years, about 17% of Kentucky children were chronically absent, according to Chang.

During the 2022-2023 school year, that number increased to 30%. (Data for the 2023-2024 school year is not yet available). This is even more critical for Eastern Kentucky, where 20% of students were chronically absent before COVID-19 and back-to-back deadly floods.

Now, half or more of the kids in Eastern Kentucky are chronically absent from school, Chang said.

“Even before the pandemic, that has been an issue in Eastern Kentucky,” she said. “And after the pandemic, and after the disaster hit that region … we can see that they have skyrocketed in absenteeism.”

In West and Western Kentucky, too, where deadly tornadoes hit in 2021, absenteeism rose.

Florence Chang (Photo provided from KDE)

“My suspicion is: it has to do with economically disadvantaged, poor counties maybe having less access … to resources, both learning resources and community resources,” said Chang.

A student is chronically absent if they miss more than 10% of their enrolled time at school, according to KDE. Absenteeism is different from truancy, which has legal implications, explained Weeter. A student can be absent for any reason.

The increase “is not specific to Kentucky,” Chang said. Chronic absenteeism is usually linked to barriers a student faces, like lack of transportation, a health condition or a work responsibility; aversion to school because of anxiety or lack of connection; disengagement from school following a time during the pandemic when children studied from home; and the idea that school is unsafe or one must stay home for every cough and sneeze.

“It’s likely it is complicated and a combination of the four reasons — not just one,” Chang said.

The 2024 Kentucky KIDS COUNT Data Book, released by Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA) Monday, links these chronic absences to widespread trauma and poverty. Kids Count is part of a national initiative from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

What does the KIDS COUNT report show? 

The 2024 Kentucky KIDS COUNT Data Book, released by Kentucky Youth Advocates Monday, links these chronic absences to widespread trauma and poverty. Kids Count is part of a national initiative from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (Screenshot from report)

The new Kids Count report shows there are more Kentucky children not proficient in reading and math. It also shows more high school students are not graduating on time and more 3- and 4- year-olds aren’t in school.

According to the report, which tracks child welfare year to year:

  • 69% of 4th graders scored below proficient in reading in 2022
  • 79% of 8th graders scored below proficient in math in 2022
  • 10% of high school students did not graduate on time in 2020-21
  • 25% of children were chronically absent in 2021-22
  • In 2022, 85% of Black students and 78% of Latino students were not at 4th grade reading proficiency
  • 1% of English-language learners were at or above 8th grade math proficiency in 2022.

Terry Brooks, the executive director of KYA, said kids need enough food, good sleep, a reliable and safe way to get to school, and other supports like mental health services and tutoring to meet educational goals.

Terry Brooks, the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Sarah Ladd)

“To be clear, kids are more than their test scores,” Brooks said. “But these scores give us the tools to understand the realities of our classrooms and a roadmap around imaginative reforms and targeted interventions. Innovation in classroom rhythms, school culture and community collaboratives are key to ensuring children meet their milestones, as is recruiting and retaining a strong K-12 and early childhood education workforce.”

Chang with KDE said that the ongoing educator shortage can lead students to feel disconnected from school. If they cannot rely on having a consistent teacher, she said, they may feel less obliged to show up.

Brooks also called on legislators to “reclaim that legacy” of putting public education first in Frankfort and find common ground on education policy.

“We need to move from where we are – when seemingly public education is the most politicized and divisive policy issue in Frankfort – and  reclaim the ethos of Kentuckians joining together when it comes to K-12 classrooms,” he said. “That kind of common ground agenda is essential for our children and just as critical in building a strong workforce and economy for the future. That means resources for sure, but it also means engagement by us all and a fundamental restructuring of how we do ‘school’ in Kentucky.”

What are child welfare advocates seeing throughout the state? 

Olivia Raley is a social worker embedded in the Bardstown Police Department. She and therapy dog Maverick work with kids. (Photo provided)

Olivia Raley, a social worker embedded with the Bardstown Police Department, says COVID-19 “set a lot of families and kiddos back” in their social skills and interpersonal relationships.

“That isolation period of a year or two was very detrimental to kids’ prefrontal cortex … not developing on track, as it should,” Raley said.

She and her 80-pound sidekick, a certified therapy Siberian Husky named Maverick, help kids who need to report assault feel more comfortable. Maverick, 4, also escorts children in the courtroom when they need extra emotional support. She said having Maverick helps break through defenses easier.

“I’m a woman, I have a dog,” she said. “We don’t have that initial barrier sometimes where some kiddos are afraid of law enforcement or they’ve been involved in the system so many times.”

In her work, she’s seeing more and more children disconnected from school and community. During the worst of the pandemic, all these children had to do was sit and look at a screen. Now, she said, they’re reluctant to leave their homes.

Therapy dog Maverick works at the Bardstown Police Department. (Photo provided).

“If kiddos come from a complex trauma-associated family, that’s all they have,” she said. “And they don’t have the school ally, they don’t have gym, they don’t have all these extra curricular activities (where) they could blossom.”

The pandemic further isolated students who lacked internet access, which Raley said became part of their “hierarchy of needs.” If children didn’t have the ability to participate in remote learning, they fell behind.  This makes it more difficult to catch up in person — both educationally and socially.

This period of time also allowed abused kids to “slip through the cracks,” Raley said.

Separated by a screen or less, school staff couldn’t see if a child had a bruise or other indicators of mistreatment.

Additionally, if a child learns, during their formative years, that the outside world is a dangerous place, they may not want to report abuse happening in the home or even go to class surrounded by their peers, Raley said.

“Because of COVID, a lot of kids were missed,” Raley said. “They’ve been taught that the outside world is scary. Now they have this. And so there are a lot of kiddos that are suffering, emotionally, physically, because of COVID.”

Where are the parents in this?

Parents play a part in making sure kids are in school, Chang with KDE said. Parental and familial apathy is emerging as a concern, she said.

During the early years of the pandemic, “parents got an inside view into the instruction and seeing so many of the assignments that could get completed through Google Classroom or … their Chromebook devices,” Chang said. “So they can see ‘oh, well they can just complete this at home,’ thinking … it’s not a big deal if you miss.”

At other times, a parent keeps a child out of school out of concern for their health, Weeter said.

“Even before the pandemic, there was a lot of conversation about how some students … wouldn’t show up at school because … it was a bad air quality day,” she said. “And if they didn’t have a school nurse that could give them an inhaler … their parent might keep them home … for health reasons.”

Not every school district has a nurse, state data obtained by the Lantern shows.

Additionally, parents’ mental health issues and substance use “can be, absolutely, contributing to absenteeism,” Chang said.

That’s because if parents are dealing with addictions or other distractions, they’re not monitoring their children, social workers explained. This means no one is making sure those kids get to school.

Substance use making for ‘very scary time for kids’ 

Access to deadly drugs, too, make it “a very, very scary time for kids,” Raley said. The 27-year-old already knows several people from her high school graduating class who died after overdosing.

In her social work, too, she sees a lot of substance use among youth.

“Substance use disorder can kill you and kids see that. A lot of kids have lost so many relatives, so many friends, to substance use disorder. And they don’t have a way to tell anybody or to reach out or because they are in this isolated mode right now because of COVID,” she said.

Olivia Raley is a social worker embedded in the Bardstown Police Department. She and therapy dog Maverick work with kids.

And yet kids who experiment with substances are exposed to dangerous combinations, she said. The 2023 Drug Overdose Fatality Report shows that in 2023, 92 Kentuckians between the ages of 15 and 24 died from an overdose.

Nine children — between the ages of 0 and 4 — died from overdoses. Between 0 and 5 children between the ages of 5 and 14 met the same fate.

“Party drugs aren’t a thing anymore — it’s moved on to heroin, fentanyl. High schoolers right now are at a very high risk for overdoses because of how many drugs are cut with fentanyl nowadays,” Raley said. “Narcan is a huge push right now – to make sure it’s in schools, it’s in homes right now.”

Exposure to substance use disorders is an adverse childhood experience (ACE), which  are traumas minors live through that have far-reaching impacts on adulthood. Survivors are more likely to have chronic health conditions including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. They’re also at higher risk of experience poverty, having pregnancy problems and suffering from stress. Some even go on to perpetuate ACEs, feeding a reciprocating spiral of illness and violence.


What do kids need right now? 


The new KIDS COUNT report recommends these action steps for Kentucky to “get kids back on track:”

  • Make sure children arrive in the classroom ready to learn by ensuring  access to low- or no-cost meals, a reliable internet connection, a place to study, and time with  friends, teachers, and counselors.
  • Deepen investments in school wrap-around services to support student success and family connection. Family Resource and Youth Service Centers, tutoring programs, mental health services, nutrition  programming, after school care, and other services support young learners and encourage parent engagement, which leads to better outcomes for kids.
  • Address chronic absence, so more students return to learn. Lawmakers should embrace positive approaches rather than criminalizing students or parents due to attendance challenges, because they may not understand the consequences of even a few days missed.
  • Expand access to intensive tutoring for students who are behind in their classes and missing academic  milestones.

KDE is pushing the message to school districts and parents that “being in school is important,” Chang said, to counter absenteeism. Getting more kids in school desks starts with communication, she said, and making sure parents understand attendance policies.

Staff are also “changing the lens of how we look at absenteeism from … a punitive approach … to a family engagement approach,” she said. “So, making sure that we can talk to families about supports and understanding the reasons. Because: every chronic absenteeism student has a story to tell.”