New bill seeks to curb chronic absenteeism statewide

New bill seeks to curb chronic absenteeism statewide


EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — State Rep. Joseph McNamara recently introduced legislation designed to tackle chronic absenteeism in Rhode Island’s schools.


McNamara, who chairs the House Education Committee, told 12 News that the bill would create “a system in schools” to deal with chronic absenteeism.

“What we have realized analyzing real-time data for the past couple of years relating to chronic absenteeism, [is] that a history of being chronically absent in a previous year often predicts the behavior that’s going to occur in the following year,” he said.

This issue also hits home for the lawmaker, who used to be a teacher and administrator in Pawtucket’s school district. He noted that when absences stack up, students miss critical lessons from their classes.

“As a former teacher and administrator, I see it, especially at the secondary level. That’s where I spent most of my career. If you’re absent and say, you’re taking algebra and you miss the order of operations, you probably remember: ‘Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,’” McNamara explained. “If you miss that lesson, guess what, you’re not going to be able to solve the simplest algebraic problem because you don’t know the order of operations.”

The proposal defines a chronically absent student as someone who missed “10% or more of school days for any reason, whether excused or not, when enrolled for more than 10 days.”

McNamara said that some of the factors that could lead to students consistently missing school include medical issues, food insecurity and being unhoused.

This bill would mandate requirements for schools’ attendance policies, set reporting requirements, and set up guidelines for when schools begin an intervention process for chronically absent students.

McNamara emphasized that this bill is an important piece of the puzzle when improving the state’s recovery for education post-pandemic.

“We could have the best teachers, the best curriculums, and we’re building new schools and the best schools, but if students aren’t attending – we will not be successful,” he said. “We will not be able to educate the students of our state when we have over 50% of high school students that are chronically absent in our urban districts.”

Currently, the state has a statewide campaign aimed at curbing chronic absenteeism called Attendance Matters that launched late last year.

This bill by McNamara is the fourth he’s introduced this session to address chronic absenteeism. The other bills he’s sponsored include:

  • H 7289, which would create a two-year outreach and tracking program at two public high schools to address issues of attendance and chronic absenteeism among students.
  • H 7290, which would direct each district to adopt a program to monitor absenteeism data to identify which students are more at risk before it becomes a problem.
  • H 7195, which would create a one-year pilot program during the 2024-2025 school year that would provide outreach and tracking at two public high schools and two public middle schools to address issues of asthma and attendance among students.

McNamara said his latest bill, which “is really an adaption” of H 7290, would take the place of that bill.

“The other one was the same concept of having attendance teams in school,” McNamara added. “This bill just expands on it and enhances it a little bit more.”

The Rhode Island Department of Education has also signed onto this bill. As with almost every legislation, where leadership and the governor stand on it plays a vital role in that bill’s fate.

“I praise Chairman McNamara for his hard work and persistent focus on strategies to address chronic absenteeism,” House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi told 12 News. “As a long-time educator, he understands that improving school attendance is an important tool in improving overall outcomes in education. I look forward to reviewing the testimony with him.”

Improving student attendance is a top priority for Gov. Dan McKee and is part of his Learn 365 initiative, which aims to improve student achievement levels statewide.

“We thank Representative McNamara for submitting this legislation on our Administration’s behalf and for his continued dedication to helping Rhode Island address chronic absenteeism head on,” McKee spokesperson Olivia DaRocha said.

Since its introduction, the bill has been referred to the House Education Committee. House spokesperson Larry Berman said a hearing will likely be scheduled for next week.