Chronic absenteeism evident in Sauk Valley, but it was far worse elsewhere

There was illness, but no area districts approached the 70% rate of the state’s 100 worst in this category

Contact tracer Kathie Whalen scans in a vial from a tester Friday morning at Sterling High School. Because of the surge in positive COVID-19 cases, Sterling Public Schools is trying to hire additional contact tracers to take the burden off existing staff.

The COVID-19 pandemic likely was a factor in some of the chronic absenteeism Sauk Valley school districts experienced last year.

The 2022 Illinois Report Card, which was released Thursday, identified chronic absenteeism as a key challenge for schools as students returned full time to the classroom.

No school district in the region saw less than 11% of its student body classified as chronically absent, but for some, it was better than one-third.

“I think, in talking to most of our administrators, the main factor was the pandemic,” said Chris Tennyson, regional superintendent for the Regional Office of Education 47 for Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties.

All the figures in this story are based on preliminary numbers provided to the media in advance of the release of the Illinois Report Card data Thursday morning.

To be “chronically absent,” a student had to miss 10% of the school year, usually 17 or more days. Excused and unexcused absences counted the same.

Even so, the level of absenteeism was a far cry from what schools in other parts of the state experienced, data from the Illinois State Board of Education’s annual report showed.

The state average for absenteeism was 29.8%. There were 18 schools that were 90% or higher; most were alternative school settings, and all but one was located in the city of Chicago. There were almost 100 schools across the state at 70% or higher.

Even before the pandemic, chronic absenteeism was seen as a widespread national phenomena, highlighted in a report by the U.S. Department of Education.

During the fall of 2021, however, it became an everyday problem for schools in northwest Illinois.

Schools were coping with absences linked to illness, testing and close contact tracing. Some parents also were quick to hold out students with any signs of respiratory illness. Students also got sent home if they exhibited any of these three COVID-19 symptoms: fever, diarrhea or vomiting.

“Dealing with students who’ve been exposed and need to be quarantined, that’s going to add to it. You have parents concerned about their children’s health,” Tennyson said. “They were being cautious.”

The return to in-person learning was an understandable transition for many parents, Tennyson said, in what was a period of uncertainty.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “Two years ago, it was acceptable to stay at home and learn at home. … Last year was important to us as educators to get back in the classroom. We were having to balance learning loss with concerns parents had about health.”

Three regional districts came in above the state average for absenteeism. They were Amboy at 37.2%, Rochelle High School at 37.3% and Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico at 35.8%

Another seven districts saw absenteeism in excess of 20% of their student body.

School rates

Here are the chronic absenteeism rates, reflected as a percentage of the district enrollment, by county:

Lee: Amboy 37.2%, Dixon 29.2% and Ashton-Franklin 15.7%

Whiteside: Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico 35.8%, Rock Falls ESD 13 27.8%, Montmorency 24.7%, Morrison 22.5%, Erie 21.4%, River Bend 18.8%, Sterling 16%, East Coloma-Nelson 12.9% and Rock Falls High School 11.2%

Ogle: Rochelle High School 37.3%, Rochelle CCSD 27.2%, Byron 21.6%, Meridian 18.9%, Oregon 18.4%, Eswood 16.2%, Forestville Valley 15.6%, Creston 15% and Polo 10.6%

Carroll: West Carroll 24.1%, Eastland 18.1% and Chadwick-Milledgeville 11.7%

Breakdowns for schools in Sterling, Rock Falls, Dixon

Looking at absentee percentages at schools within the districts in the three cities of Dixon, Sterling and Rock Falls revealed the following:

Dixon: Dixon High School 44.6%, Reagan 22.6%, Madison 17.4%, Jefferson 12.4% and Washington 15.6%

Sterling: Sterling High School 23.5%, Challand 12.85%, Franklin 12.9%, Jefferson 16.5%, Lincoln 10.4% and Washington 6.6%

Rock Falls: Dillon 29.5%, Rock Falls Middle 29.6%, Montmorency 24.7%, Merrill 24.7%, East Coloma Nelson 12.9% and Rock Falls High School 11.2%

Truancy

Beyond chronic absenteeism, there is chronic truancy. A student is chronically truant if they are absent without a valid cause for 5% of the school year, usually nine days.

Stephanie Youngmark is truancy director for the Regional Office of Education 47, who along with four outreach specialists works with the schools and parents to intervene and resolve attendance issues.

As soon as a student has four unexcused absences, the schools reach out to Youngmark’s team to intervene before the attendance record gets classified as chronically truant.

Those referrals are up. Youngmark said her staff grew by two members in the past two years and is looking to add another.

“Everybody on our truancy team has a huge heart and wants the best for the students they work with,” Youngmark said. “But it has definitely gotten challenging the last two years.”

Typically, the outreach specialists – and that includes Youngmark, who also carries a case load – convenes an intervention meeting with the student at the school involving the parents, an administrator and other advisers or counselors.

Youngmark said the key to returning a student to full attendance often is to identify and address any underlying issues, which can include financial, health or social stresses on family life. Sometimes, it’s as simple as outreach specialists providing transportation. Other times, it means connecting the family to community resources.

But it can also be about reestablishing or finding new connections between the student and school life. Can their friends, a class or activity hold their interest?

A lot of connections were severed during the pandemic, Youngmark said, during the period of lockdowns and at-home remote learning. Youngmark pointed out that there were students who essentially skipped most of their junior high years.

Entering high school itself can be overwhelming, and doing directly from grade school even more so. Lost were those junior high years when social, extracurricular and academic connections are made.

“[We’re] still seeing a residue because there are kids struggling, and they are behind,” Youngmark said. “[Kids are] facing more mental health and anxiety. [They need more] social-emotional support. It’s a very real thing that’s happening.”

That begins a period of monitoring, daily calls to the schools to track absences and monthly evaluations, all of which continues until they reach 90% in-person attendance. Until that number is reached, interventions may continue into the subsequent semester. If it gets worse, state’s attorney’s offices and court services can become involved; if it gets better, the reins come off.

“[The] goal is to get them to be independent with their attendance,” she said.

School rates by county

Truancy rates for school districts by county are below:

Lee: Dixon 11.7%, Amboy 12% and Ashton-Franklin 4.1%

Carroll: Eastland 3% and West Carroll 9.8%

Whiteside: Erie 6.5%, River Bend 2.7%, Prophetstown-L-T 9.3%, Sterling 6.5%, Morrison 6.1%, Rock Falls ESD 3.3% and Rock Falls High School 5.8%

Ogle: Rochelle HS 13.7%, Oregon 5.8%, Forrestville Valley 6.1%, Polo 3.2%, Meridian 4.7%, Byron 2.4% and Rochelle CCSD 6.1%

School districts that did not have truancy figures include Steward, Paw Paw, Chadwick-Milledgeville, East Coloma-Nelson, Montmorency, Kings, Creston and Eswood.

Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for Saukvalley.com and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.