High Rates of Student Absenteeism on Potrero Hill

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Last year, three public schools located on Potrero Hill grappled with distressing levels of chronic student absenteeism. In 2022, 39 percent of students at Daniel Webster Elementary School, 29 percent of Starr King Elementary School students, and 32 percent of San Francisco International High School students missed at least 18 days of school. Starr King was the only school that didn’t have higher than average chronic absenteeism compared to the San Francisco Unified School District as a whole, 29 percent, according to California Department of Education data.

Data for Downtown High School, located on Vermont Street, wasn’t available.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of instructional days, or 18 days, whether excused or unexcused. Typical reasons for students to miss school include illness, mental health concerns, and personal matters that prompt a student to stay away from the classroom. 

Chronic absenteeism is much higher than in previous years. SFUSD reported a 14 percent systemwide rate in 2021 and 2020.  In 2019, chronic absenteeism rates were 18 percent for Daniel Webster, 11 percent for Starr King, roughly 10 percent for San Francisco International High School, and 12 percent districtwide. 

In accordance with post-pandemic practices, SFUSD attempts to contact the student or their family after the first and second unexcused absences. An initial declaration of legal truant notice is sent to the student’s parent or caregiver after a third unexcused absence. 

According to Siva Raj, cofounder of SF Guardians, a coalition of parents, teachers, and concerned residents that led a successful recall of SFUSD School Board members, the increase in absences is a legacy of the pandemic and extended school closures. 

“Students who are struggling are the ones who are not showing up and that puts them even further behind. There’s a lot of research that tells us what interventions are promising. We urgently need to get those interventions in place and then double down on the ones that work,” said Raj. 

Laura Dudnick, SFUSD interim communications director, said when students are chronically absent SFUSD deploys a “care coordination strategy…intentionally organizing student and family services and sharing information with all of the people connected to a student to achieve more effective care and better outcomes. The Student and Family Services Division has a dynamic role in the District’s approach to coordinated care. We have staff assigned to various school sites who hold this work; school social workers, wellness staff, and school nurses. We have central teams of staff who support consultation, direct work with students and families, and tiered supports such as compliance work.” 

SFUSD implemented group tracing for COVID-19 in March 2022. The method allows students who are close contacts to stay in school unless they have or develop symptoms or test positive for COVID-19. Despite this approach, according to Dudnick, SFUSD saw the greatest attendance dips during the September and January 2022 COVID-19 surges. 

Rebecca Kee, Daniel Webster Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) president, said the school’s administration is “really excellent” at targeting issues rather than having a “one size fits all” approach. 

“They invest in getting to know our families so that they have a sense of who’s out due to illness and who’s missing school for other reasons they can help address. Fortunately, I don’t think most absenteeism is due to things other than these relentless germs!” said Kee. 

Scholars and their families can seek help through the Student Family and School Resource Link, which provides a way to navigate SFUSD resources. The District’s Coordinated Care Team follows up on truancy cases, partnering with schools to find ways to support the family, such as assisting with transportation if that’s an issue. 

“The effort includes…school attendance review boards, suspension, expulsion, focus population work such as LGTBQ, Refugee and Immigrant Solidarity in Education, a SFUSD program to increase access to education for refugee and immigrant students, Foster Youth Services, and Students and Families Experiencing Homelessness…The past two years have been among the most exceptionally challenging for school, which means we must be, and are, committed to exploring new opportunities to engage with families,” said Dudnick. 

Kee said what matters most is having a strong sense of community. 

“We feel so lucky to have such a tight, connected group of people at Daniel Webster. (We) care enough about each other to not send kids to school sick or keep info hidden. We worked closely with the admin team to strategize every event or mitigation together…parents helped set up a new outdoor patio for safer meals. We have our community events outside most of the time,” said Kee. 

Dr. M. Cecilia Gonzalez, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente’s Mission Bay campus, said this winter the health care provider has seen a significant number of viral illness cases, mainly COVID-19, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), and influenza. 

“We are experiencing higher volumes than usual of pediatric respiratory illnesses for this time of year, driven by RSV and the flu. We are also seeing an uptick in flu and COVID hospitalizations. We encourage everyone to get their flu shot this year and bivalent COVID-19 booster when eligible,” said Gonzalez. 

Gonzalez said that although Kaiser is now seeing a decline in flu cases, it anticipates new surges of influenza and COVID-19 over the next few months. 

“Parents should keep kids home from school if they are sick. Parents and teachers should also remind children to wash their hands frequently at home and at school. Properly worn masks remain an effective option to reduce the risk of respiratory viral infections,” said Gonzalez. 

According to Gonzalez, flu testing isn’t recommended for everyone but is important for high-risk groups. RSV testing isn’t required for most people.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, SFUSD has worked closely with the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH). 

“We have shared information from DPH with families and staff this year as it relates to RSV and the flu, including how families can access vaccines and other general health messaging such as to stay home if you are sick,” said Dudnick. “We have also partnered with DPH to create informational videos about COVID updates in multiple languages, with subtitles. In addition, we have provided testing resources and hosted vaccine clinics at schools,” 

Tyrone S. Hillman, III, one of two Mayor-appointed commissioners on the 17-member Youth Commission, which advises the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the Mayor on policies related to young people, believes effectively addressing absences requires working with parents, having COVID-19 tests available at schools, and encouraging teachers and administrators to reach out to students.

“If teachers are more involved, absence rates will be lower. Teachers can improve communication with students by checking in with them outside of school. They can show students they are people students can talk to,” said Hillman, who is 16 and a junior at Rise University Preparatory, an independent high school in Bayview.