California lawmakers hold hearing on chronic school absenteeism during pandemic

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — State lawmakers held an oversight hearing Tuesday on learning loss and a drop in enrollment at California schools.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond testified at the hearing as schools across the state face chronic absenteeism and significant dips in enrollment.

“Things have been as difficult as you can imagine. There’s no question this is the toughest time we will experience in our lifetime,” Thurmond said.

The oversight hearing with the California Assembly Budget and Education Finance committees comes amid another year for schools in the pandemic and following another historic fire season in the state.

Officials said chronic absenteeism is defined by students missing 10% or more of school and that the percentages of the issue across California have nearly tripled compared to two years ago.

“We are facing an attendance crisis at every grade,” said Hedy Chang of the organization Attendance Works.

Experts who presented Tuesday noted the attendance issues stem from an increase in COVID-19 cases, students sticking with remote learning and older students juggling family and work responsibilities.

“Every public school traditional public and charter public will tell you they’re experiencing issues around attendance. They are concerned what that means for the fiscal cliff going forward,” Thurmond said.

But state lawmakers Tuesday told education leaders funding shouldn’t be an issue this upcoming year.

In the upcoming state budget, the California Legislative Analyst Office projects a surplus that would make $20 billion total available for education.

How exactly the money will be spent is to be debated, but addressing staffing shortages and boosting teacher pay were brought up in the hearing.

“Although we have an urgent student engagement challenge, I want to assure you California is not facing a funding challenge, in fact, we have a funding opportunity,” said Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach.

While lawmakers and school officials discussed possible ways to get kids back in the classroom, the state’s vaccine and mask mandates for California students were mostly left out of the conversation, which upset a group of parents inside the hearing room.

“Shame on you, I’m offended,” said parent Sherina Latch. “Stop it, stop these mandates.”

A clearer picture of how the Legislature will move forward with addressing the absence and enrollment issues will come in January.

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