Students in a classroom at Daniel Webster Elementary School in September 2021. Absences rose among Black, Pacific Islander and homeless students in the San Francisco Unified School District during the 2020-2021 school year. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Students in a classroom at Daniel Webster Elementary School in September 2021. Absences rose among Black, Pacific Islander and homeless students in the San Francisco Unified School District during the 2020-2021 school year. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

‘Troubling’ report finds more chronic absences among some SFUSD students

‘The numbers indicate our house is on fire and we need to take action to address it’

Chronic absences rose dramatically among Black, Pacific Islander, and homeless students during the 2020-2021 school year spent at home, a new report from San Francisco Unified School District shows.

“I’m just very troubled by the data that I see,” said school board member Kevine Boggess, who is Black and also attended SFUSD schools. “It’s troubling that it’s the same. The numbers indicate that our house is on fire and we need to take urgent action to address it.”

Among Black students during the 2020-2021 school year, 45 percent were considered to be chronically absent, which is defined as having an attendance rate of 90 percent or less. The previous school year, 38 percent were chronically absent.

Pacific Islander students, too, saw a jump from 34 percent in 2019-2020 to 47 percent. That erased progress from the 2018-2019 school year, at 38 percent. About 33 percent of students experiencing homelessness were chronically absent in 2020-2021, up from 28 percent the previous year.

Overall, staff said absentee rates remained stable. Latinx students remained steady at about 25 percent chronically absent, up 1 percent from the previous year. Roughly 4 percent of Asian students were chronically absent in 2020-2021, the same as the previous year. White students saw a decline in chronic absenteeism, going from 9 percent in 2019-2021 to 6 percent in 2020-2021.

“As much as I’d like to sit here and be happy about the strides, the data is always disheartening,” said school board member Faauuga Moliga, who is Samoan and attended SFUSD schools, at a school board meeting on Tuesday. “From my experience, there’s a lot of issues, trauma that kids are facing to even get to point of feeling safe to allow themselves to feel comfortable to learn. It’s not going to get easier unless we get busy as a school district and as a city.”

If the rest of the state is any indication, the problem could increase during the current school year. Chronic absenteeism has surged in districts like Long Beach, Elk Grove, Oakland, and Stockton, EdSource first reported, due to everything from fears of coronavirus in schools to mental health and behavioral issues. The more students are absent, the less funding schools receive from the state.

The annual report on education metrics, released this week, also captured a deepening opportunity gap for local students struggling with literacy and math proficiency. Education leaders often speak to the challenges of teaching students who don’t have their basic needs met at home, which became an urgent matter for many families during the pandemic. Without readily available technology, a starker digital divide emerged, making it harder for students to stay engaged online and for faculty to reach parents.

Black and Pacific Islander students were also harder to reach for surveys conducted by the district on families’ general well-being. Of the families reached, 80 percent reported they were doing well and up to 90 percent said they had what they needed, such as internet access. But the district was unable to contact nearly 14 percent of Black students and 18.4 percent of Pacific Islander students to conduct the survey.

The report also showed that SFUSD enrollment dropped from 52,934 students in 2019-2021 to 51,898 students for the following school year. The nearly 2 percent drop compares to a roughly 3 percent statewide drop in public school students during the same period, driven by kindergartners.

School board member Matt Alexander pointed to the need to expand on the community school model, which deeply partners with local organizations to provide wrap-around support outside of academic needs. He called for more social workers and literacy coaches, among other things.

Improving upon that effort, however, will be made more difficult by the district’s structural deficit coming to a head. SFUSD faces a nearly $114 million deficit for the next school year.

“Once you start cutting those pieces, it becomes harder to ramp up those investments,” Alexander said. “The question is how to find a path for implementation.”

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