Attendance Works is a partner in the Every School Day Counts Detroit coalition, one of many groups, schools and other social institutions working to address and lower chronic absenteeism in Detroit schools. This blog post was originally published by the Skillman Foundation, a children’s philanthropy that works to ensure Detroit youth achieve their highest aspirations.

By: Sarah Winchell Lenhoff

Even before the pandemic, more than half of Detroit students were considered “chronically absent,” missing 10% (18 days) or more of the school year. During the pandemic, attendance rates have gotten even worse, as students struggled with access to schooling, such as a lack of technology and internet access.

How can we ensure that Detroit students can attend school regularly enough to access the education they deserve?

Wayne State University’s Detroit Education Research Partnership (DERP) produced a study called “Why Detroit Students Miss School?” with the support of the Every School Day Counts Detroit coalition. We looked at the reasons behind chronic absence and what they mean for students when they return to school after the pandemic.

This report contains in-depth interviews with Detroit parents and high school students, along with observations and interviews with Detroit school staff to document attendance trends and outline the major causes of student absenteeism in Detroit. We also looked at the challenges school systems have in addressing these causes on their own, and the implications for policy and practice at the school, community, city, and state levels, as students move back to in-person schooling. The report also presents key recommendations to leaders on how to best address barriers to increase attendance across the city.

Major Findings

Our study found some key findings in determining why Detroit students miss school and families’ attitudes about chronic absence:

  • Transportation was by far the most frequent and challenging barrier to attendance that we heard from families. But issues with getting to school were more complex than access to transportation. They emerged from a combination of unreliable or inconsistent availability of transportation, weak social networks, parents’ work schedules, unsafe conditions, and more.
  • Health issues (both physical and mental) for students and families created barriers to attendance.
  • Parents expressed a strong understanding that missing school jeopardized students’ learning, and they went to great lengths to get their children to school. Parents also weighed serious trade-offs between attendance, safety, health, and family income, reflecting the unjust conditions they face.

Key Recommendations

Based on our findings, we make the following recommendations to address the barriers students and families face in getting to school:

  • Transportation: Detroit school and civic leaders must develop new, system-wide solutions for school transportation to ensure that students can access the public education they deserve, including immediately advocating for more resources to maintain health and safety protocols on school and public transportation, developing creative solutions for back-up transportation, and aligning school transportation with other neighborhood development efforts in Detroit.
  • Health: Detroit school leaders should provide clear guidance to families about health and school attendance, advocate for resources to ensure that schools are safe when students and staff return to in-person learning, and establish back-up plans for when in-person learning is not safe.
  • Student & Family Support: School and community attendance initiatives should prioritize support more than accountability. Cross-sector partnerships should be developed and strengthened to remove barriers to attendance and strengthen the conditions for student attendance across Detroit.


Families are likely eager for in-person schooling to return because of concerns about the quality of distance learning and the time and effort needed to make sure it happens. Students are eager to spend less time on computers and more time in-person with friends and teachers. Still, the barriers to attendance they faced before the pandemic are likely to be greater after Covid-19.

Schools and districts will need to work hard to understand how things have changed for families, including whether they face new socioeconomic challenges, if they have suffered loss and/or struggled with stress or trauma, and what their ongoing health and safety concerns are. Right now, school and district leaders should invest in efforts to gather information and to plan appropriately, coordinate with community organizations and social services providers, and together advocate for the necessary resources from the city and state to support an effective return in the fall.

Read the full report.

Read this blog post on the Skillman Foundation's website.