The Attendance Gap Flares Up

A very important study was released just before the ISSA/INTERCLEAN® Las Vegas trade show last year that I think is so critical to our industry I want to discuss it here to ensure it is not overlooked. The study, Mapping the Early Attendance Gap: Charting A Course of Student Success, was produced by an organization called Attendance Works in conjunction with the Healthy Schools Campaign, an organization with which I am very involved.

The study found that an estimated 5 to 7.5 million American students are missing about a month of school each year and this is seriously impacting them academically. The problem starts early, with an estimated 10 percent of kindergartners and first graders absent from school each year. This is a very critical time for youngsters because it is typically during these early years of schooling that they are beginning to learn how to read. Missing school at this important juncture can result in these students being permanently behind their peers.

And then the absence rate spikes again in children entering their teen years. This is another very critical time because many teenage students, especially from low-income families, begin to question if they want to finish their schooling. If they are sick frequently – as much as a month a year – quitting school can seem almost like a practical decision. But, the study warns, poor attendance at this stage in a student’s development “is a warning sign that a student has missed an on-ramp to success and is headed off track for graduation” and very likely a wide range of difficulties during their adult lives.

We should note, these kids are not “skipping” school. The study reports that the reasons these students are missing school can be tied directly to a number of factors; but the first one noted is health related and that is: asthma. And as we know all too well, this is an issue American schools and the professional cleaning industry have grappled with for decades.

Focus on Asthma

According to the study, asthma, asthma attacks, and other serious respiratory problems account for about 14 million school absences each year. The more serious and frequent the attacks, the more likely the student will be absent from school and the longer those absences will be. We know that even effective cleaning cannot prevent some asthma “triggers.” Some schools, due to age, neglect, or poor upkeep, have mold, mildew, and other problems that can cause asthma and respiratory problems.

In other cases, healthcare simply is inadequate or no healthcare is available for these students. In one case study cited in the study mentioned earlier, a student that missed nearly a week of school every month for six months –seriously impacting him academically – saw his health improve and his school absenteeism decline when a full-service health clinic opened near his school and became available to him.

This is where the professional cleaning industry comes in. The report points out specifically that “harsh cleaning chemicals,” which typically means traditional cleaning solutions, can negatively impact student health and trigger asthma attacks. Other studies going back more than twenty-five years have pointed this out as well, and it is not just students that are affected. A California organization called the Regional Asthma Management and Prevention (RAMP), reports that custodial workers also have high rates of what is termed “occupational asthma,” which has been linked to the traditional cleaning solutions they work with in schools.

What We Need to Do

I have many times referred to the Green Cleaning and sustainability movements as a journey. There really is no end point…we are always looking for new ways to keep building users, especially students, teachers, and the custodians working in our educational facilities, healthy. But as with any journey, there are high points and low points, and sometimes things just stall.

Our industry has made tremendous gains in transferring school districts around the country from traditional to environmentally preferable cleaning products and procedures. But what this study points out is that we still have much to do. One of the things we should consider is replicating what we started at last year’s Green Apple Day of service.

Working with ISSA, the Healthy Schools Campaign, and The Ashkin Group, nearly 800 school custodians, serving nearly 311,000 students, in seven different U.S. school districts were provided with what we termed high-performance cleaning training. They were taught state-of-the-art techniques and procedures to clean more effectively and efficiently using Green Cleaning solutions.

But one single day each year is not enough. I would like to encourage our industry to get more involved with their local schools and school districts throughout the year. Reducing chronic absenteeism in our schools is every American’s problem and it is one the professional cleaning industry not only can help address, but one that students, teachers, and parents will expect us to address to help turn things around.