Chronic absenteeism in the Long Beach school district has reached a rate of nearly 30 percent this year, an eye-popping number that is among the highest in New York state. The sobering statistic means that more than 1,000 of the district’s 3,545 students are on track to be absent more than 10 percent of the school year.
School district officials disclosed the numbers in response to a request by the Herald last week.
In the 2020-21 school year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, chronic absenteeism at Long Beach High School was 21 percent, or about 275 of the high school’s 1,317 students. Districtwide, the rate was about 20 percent. That year, chronic absenteeism statewide was 29 percent.
In Nassau County, Long Beach’s chronic absenteeism rate dwarfs that of many other districts, and is the one of the highest in the county. In Rockville Centre, the rate was about 7 percent in 2020-21, the most recent figures available, according to the State Education Department, and in Garden City it was about 1 percent.
“Chronic absence has been a problem in our community for several years, particularly at the high school level,” Dr. Jennifer Gallagher, the superintendent of Long Beach schools, wrote in an email to the Herald, “and this problem was worsened by the pandemic.”
Gallagher said the issue has been discussed at a number of Board of Education meetings, and was a focus of the district’s five-year strategic plan.
School board President Anne Conway agreed with Gallagher that the problem was attributable in part to the pandemic. Students who tested positive for the virus had to remain out of school for five to 10 days, Conway noted.
“Schools went from saying, ‘We really want you to come to school,’ to ‘please stay home if you have even a sniffle,’” Gallagher wrote.
“And the mental health challenges that were exacerbated by the pandemic years also contributed to students feeling disengaged and isolated, increasing school avoidance. This has been challenging for schools to address since some of these students need outside mental health support.”
Robin Amato, a vice president of the Long Beach PTA, declined to comment on the absentee numbers.
Roy Lester, a member of the Long City Council who served on the school board for years, said that Covid-19 was largely to blame for the absentee rate, even in a post-pandemic world.
“It’s a different world,” said Lester, an attorney who added that he doesn’t have to appear in court as often as he did in the past. Students, he said, are following the example of their parents, many of whom are now working at home.
A key question, Lester said, is whether students are maintaining their grades.
Gallagher said that absenteeism tended to be higher among poorer students, those lacking English-speaking skills, and those with disabilities or other life challenges.
The problem is being tackled in a variety of ways, she said, including home visits and social service interventions. She said also the district has partnered with community-based organizations and churches. And it has begun a mentoring program so students can reach out to an adult in case of a crisis.
“We’ve been applying multiple strategies to re-engage students, build a relationship network amongst staff and students and nurture our family connections,” Conway wrote in an email. “The Long Beach School District offers many clubs and extracurricular activities to motivate and connect with all students.”
The district is also initiating a new busing program. There will be a late bus and a “twilight” bus, for students who miss their buses and don’t have access to a car, as well as for those who oversleep.
“At our last meeting, I asked about our late bus that sweeps through Island Park and Long Beach to pick up any students who overslept,” Conway wrote. “Our district sent a reminder to all families about this bus. Our school district is also piloting a twilight program so students can take core classes in a smaller and more nurturing environment.”
Gallagher said there would also be enrichment programs to engage students in such areas such as business and STEM subject. At the high school, she said, the district has received state grants to renovate the library and common areas to make them more inviting.
Crystal Lake, a community leader in the North Park section, bemoaned the district’s absenteeism, but said she had seen high numbers in the past. For one thing, she said, there is a need for more minority teachers to work with children of color who are chronically absent.
Lake described the situation as “extremely alarming” and said it may become worse unless there is widespread community involvement. “How are we going to deal with children who in some cases can’t read or write?” she said. “It takes a village to raise our children.”
CLARIFICATION: Long Beach's school district had a chronic absentee rate of 21.1 percent in the 2020-21 academic year, according to numbers provided by the district. That ranks it as the sixth-highest rate among 42 school districts, along with the Plainedge school district.
Hempstead, Lawrence, East Meadow, Uniondale and Westbury all reported higher chronic absenteeism during the same time period.
A story in the March 16-22 edition provided incorrect information on Long Beach's overall ranking.