Equity & Diversity

Study Links Longer School Bus Rides to Chronic Absenteeism

By Williamena Kwapo — June 16, 2022 2 min read
Image of buses lined up with stop signs extended out.
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For some students, attending a high-quality or high-performing school means opting for a school that is outside of their regular attendance zones. These schools are usually a few miles away from the student’s home, requiring them to ride the bus longer than some of their peers.

But a new study suggests those school choices could set up a barrier for students’ success, rather than bolster it. It found that long bus rides pose a disproportionate burden on Black students and may significantly increase chronic absenteeism.

Researchers at Temple University and Syracuse University tracked data from 2011 to 2017 on the morning commutes of 120,000 bus riders in the 3rd to 6th grades in New York City, where families can apply for their students to attend public schools other than the ones in their neighborhoods, to explore the link between commuting and academic outcomes. Though the study found no difference in test scores between students with longer bus rides and students with shorter rides (30 minutes or less), there was a significant difference in absentee records. The study found an absenteeism rate of 12 percent among students with exceptionally long rides—those that are more than an hour long. That rate is quite large, the study says, and amounts to missing school one more day a year than students with shorter commutes.

“We really feel like this highlights the importance of transportation policy and that districts should really sort of consider the best way to get kids to school,” said Sarah A. Cordes, of Temple University, who conducted and co-authored the study with two other researchers.

And, while the new data focused on the nation’s largest, and arguably most urban school district, long bus rides are a concern across the country, particularly in rural areas.

Why chronic absenteeism matters

According to Attendance Works, a nonprofit organization working to address chronic absenteeism in students, the term means missing 10 percent or more of school days due to absences for any reason. Being chronically absent from school can lead to students having difficulty in reading as early as the 3rd grade or achieving important educational milestones, like graduating high school. Currently, chronic absenteeism is affecting more than 8 million students across the country, the organization’s research has found.

“Chronic absence is a leading indicator and a contributor to educational inequity,” said Hedy Chang, the group’s executive director. “And if you have lots of kids who are chronically absent, it can be a sign that there are some systemic barriers that need to be addressed.”

Black students have longer commutes in New York City

The New York City study finds that, by any definition, Black students are overrepresented among those taking longer bus rides to and from school.

While Black students accounted for only 27 percent of all bus riders in the study sample, they represented over 43 percentof those with long bus rides, which researchers defined as lasting 45-60 minutes, and over 47 percent of the riders with very long bus rides—rides more than 60 minutes long. Researchers said their findings echo previous studies, which have found that Black students tend to live in neighborhoods with fewer high-quality schools.

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