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Asthma, other illnesses major reason for young learners' absences, study finds

FILE: A new study finds many absences from school in the early grades is the result of chronic illnesses, such as asthma.
BSIP/UIG via Getty Images
FILE: A new study finds many absences from school in the early grades are the result of chronic illnesses, such as asthma.

Kids skipping school is a nationwide problem, but in the youngest grades, many absent children are suffering chronic health problems, according to a new report released Monday.

While they are not truant since illness is most often an excused absence, educators are worried that these children are still missing too much school, leading to later academic problems.

The report was authored by two national nonprofits, Attendance Works and Healthy Schools Campaign. Both groups have tracked absenteeism in schools since 2007 through the Chronic Early Absence Project.

Missing a lot of school matters, said Rochelle Davis, president of Healthy Schools Campaign. “If students are not in school their learning suffers,” she said.

Research over the years has shown that when kids fail to attend school regularly in the early grades, it predicts later truancy and can contribute to dropping out. Chronic absence is defined as 18 or more missed school days in one year. Nationwide, upwards of 10 percent of kindergarteners and first-graders are chronically absent, the report said.

Previous research identified poverty as one of the driving factors behind why young kids miss a lot of school in the early grades. Some parents don’t have transportation to get a child to school, are juggling jobs or looking for work, or face homelessness. For any of these reasons, parents might not consistently take a young child to school.

The latest report adds chronic health issues to that list.

“The prevalence of chronic diseases, including asthma, obesity and diabetes, has doubled in children over the last several decades,” Davis said.

She said poor health disproportionately impacts low-income children of color. Children across all racial groups have asthma, Davis said, yet “the real issue becomes the ability of the students to have asthma that is well-managed.”

“And that is where you see a lot of racial or economic disparity, because if a child does have asthma, they need to have regular access to medical care, they need to have a school that is well set up to have an asthma management plan,” she said.

Kids also need homes that don’t make their sickness worse. “Many of our low-income kids of color live in homes that have a lot more asthma triggers,” Davis added. Living in dilapidated housing, with rodent infestations or mold are known to trigger and exacerbate asthma.

Yet many of these chronically ill children, who missing many days of class, fly under the radar of school administrators because attention is focused on finding and punishing those who miss school without an excuse, the report states.

Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, said absence, whether for a valid reason or not, can still impact a child’s learning. “Young kids don't miss school without an adult knowing the child’s home,” she said. “[But] they can still add up to too much time missed in the classroom.”

Chang said helping chronically ill children in the youngest grades is important. “Although we think about missing too much school as a problem in middle and high school, it is really something that affects our youngest children.”

Report authors suggested schools beef up in-school care for kids with asthma so they don’t have to stay home when they fear an asthma attack coming. The authors also point to programs that work with pediatric asthma patients to help bring in-home triggers under control.

The Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma (LBACA) sends community health workers into children's homes to teach parents how to eliminate mold, cockroach infestations and other suspected asthma triggers.  LBACA reports that nearly three-quarters of children who missed school before enrolling in its program had not missed school at the six-month follow-up.

Elisa Nicholas, LBACA founder and pediatrician, has spent her career working with low-income children with asthma and other respiratory illness. 

One way she and others have tested whether indoor exposures to mouse droppings, cockroaches, and molds trigger respiratory illnesses is by conducting what they call "interventions." They change children's lifestyle and housing conditions to take away the irritants, then see if doing so impacts their health.

The kids' health did improve, Nicholas said.

"We know that we’ve had less hospitalizations, less emergency room visits, less missed school days and less missed work days for the parents," she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that chronic absence is considered to be 30 or more missed days of school. It is 18 days. KPCC regrets the error.