If you came from a family where going to school each day was a given, and the idea of missing class was unheard of short of emergency or illness, it’s easy to think the worst of parents whose kids are chronically absent.

Maine students are missing school at alarmingly high rates, particularly since the pandemic, and educators say it’s not the result of widespread neglect by parents or guardians. Instead, there are too many families without the resources to get by, making daily attendance difficult.

Schools have been creative in dealing with chronic absenteeism, using new programs that reach out to struggling families and help them overcome barriers that are keeping their kids from getting to school every day.

Every effort to strengthen the relationship between schools and families is welcome. But a problem this size isn’t going to be solved on a case-by-case basis, and it cannot be left to the schools alone.

It may manifest itself in different ways, but the chief reason students are missing so much school is not wayward, neglectful parents but poverty, which too often leaves people with nothing but bad choices.



Last year in Maine, 27.3% of K-12 students missed more than 10% of the school year, down only slightly from 31.5% the previous year. Prior to the pandemic, the rate was 16.8% — still too high. However, the rate is twice as high for poor students as it is for their better-off counterparts.

Staff members from Sanford Pride Elementary School help children cross Main Street at a bus stop on a recent morning. Derek Davis/Press Herald

It’s no surprise to the people who work with these families every day and know the challenges they face. Teachers and administrators say the kids who miss school often have difficult home lives. They may have to care for siblings or work a job to help out. Their parents, or the students themselves, may be dealing with physical and mental illness that is not getting the treatment it needs. Or they may be homeless, couch-surfing from one place to another to find shelter.

When simply finding food, shelter and care is an hour-by-hour struggle, getting to school some days becomes a low priority. Sometimes, with unstable transportation and housing, it’s impossible.

Schools have responded by reaching out to these families. It’s the right thing for schools to do, and it’s certainly appreciated by the families who are helped. It would be far more effective, however, to target the poverty. We allow this stark economic disadvantage to persist even though we have policy tools to fix it.


Millions of children were pulled out of poverty when the child tax credit was expanded during the pandemic. They were plunged back into poverty when the expanded credit was repealed in 2021; in all, the child poverty rate went from 5.2%, a historic low, to 12.4%.


Why are we surprised that more families are struggling to get by, and to get their kids to school on a regular basis?

Congress could deal a significant blow to this problem, and many others stemming from the poverty rates we’ve enabled, if it just committed to a robust child tax credit that sufficiently targets the most vulnerable families.

Maine included an enhanced state-level credit in its most recent budget, but that can only go so far. An expanded credit has been included in federal budget discussions in Congress, but the proposal is relatively weak compared to the one passed in 2021 and later repealed, and even that hasn’t won support from Republicans.

Three years ago, one decision by Congress cut the child poverty rate in half, a resounding victory. It should have been the first step toward recognizing that the problem is poverty, not the people experiencing it, and that a relatively small amount of help for these families can go a long way.

Instead, Congress ended help for millions of families. Parents and kids who were just keeping their heads above water had a lifeline cut — and still we wonder why so many families are drowning.

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