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Celebrating Pediatricians as Partners in Reducing Health-Related Absences

November 7, 2023

Hedy Chang, Attendance Works executive director and founder, has been awarded the 2023 Martin C. Ushkow Award from the American Academy of Pediatrics Council On School Health (COSH).

“I have a deep appreciation for the partnership that we have, and will continue to have, with pediatricians as we move towards solutions to our nation’s student chronic absence crisis,” Chang said. She received the award last month during a special COSH session on chronic absence, held as part of the AAP’s national meeting.

“This is a moment of urgency,” Chang told the pediatricians. The most recent federal data show that two-thirds of the nation’s schools are experiencing significant levels of chronic absence affecting 20% or more of their students. These numbers should be a call to action for everyone to care about rebuilding a culture of school attendance and consider what they can do to address the varied barriers to engagement and attendance that emerged during the pandemic, Chang said.

Chang called on all pediatricians to talk with patients and their families about the impacts from missing too many days of school. One of the myths among families as well as school staff is that if an absence is excused then it is okay, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

“We have to clarify how students and families can avoid unnecessary health related absences,” Chang said. Pediatricians are perfectly positioned to be the one talking about how to avoid unnecessary absences. They can encourage taking steps to staying healthy. They can help families understand when it is okay to send a child to school who may have a minor illness or how soon they can return after recovering from being sick, Chang said.

Heidi Schumacher, MD, and a former Executive Committee member of AAP’s COSH, said that from the start, Hedy recognized the importance of urging schools and districts to view solutions to chronic absenteeism as a community wide effort. Hedy “has spearheaded a nationwide conversation about how we can work together to see good health as key to kids being in school every day,” Schumacher said.

Schumacher agreed that pediatricians have a role in improving school attendance. She urged her colleagues to find out the local chronic absent rates. It seems like a long way from preschool to dropping out of high school, but the link is there, Schumacher said. lt’s important for pediatricians to know local chronic absenteeism rates, “because many of your patients may be missing so many days of school they could be a risk of eventually dropping out,” Schumacher told the group.

Elliott Attisha, DO and senior fellow with Attendance Works, reminded his colleagues that as pediatricians “we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to understand the underlying issues” that are keeping students from attending school and engaging regularly. We must do everything possible to help children and families overcome existing barriers to healthcare access, so that they can attend school healthy and ready to learn.

He recommended that pediatricians view Addressing Chronic Absenteeism from School, a Learning Burst training developed by COSH and Attendance Works to encourage better understanding of how health providers can help.

Pediatricians can also share with families the handout developed with input from the National Association of School Nurses, Kaiser Permanente Thriving Schools and other school health providers that clarifies some misunderstandings around reasons to keep kids home and offers guidance about seeking support when students have anxiety or are immunocompromised.

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