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Students out of class

Chronic absenteeism rose during the pandemic and hasn’t returned to normal

Students out of class

At a Tuesday meeting in Tennessee, Memphis-Shelby County Schools Board of Education members learned that 28 percent of their students this school year have missed at least 1 out of 10 days of classes. The rate of chronically absent students in the district was significantly lower before the pandemic, at 16-20 percent. The problem of missing students is one schools around the country are grappling with post-pandemic.

When schools went virtual after the outbreak of COVID-19, chronic absenteeism—often defined as missing at least 10 percent of the school year—jumped. But although schools have now returned to in-person learning, the number of students missing class hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic normalcy, a problem with potentially long-term academic consequences. As education experts try to discern the causes, teachers and administrators are exploring creative ways to get kids back in class.

According to a 2021 FutureEd report, one school district saw the number of students who missed at least half the 2020-2021 school year balloon to seven times the pre-pandemic number. Another district reported that absenteeism among students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches jumped 12 percent, yet rose by only 1 percent for other students. In late 2020, more than a third of Connecticut’s English learner students were chronically absent.

A December 2021 article from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company showed that 22 percent of students may be chronically absent this school year, up from 8 percent pre-pandemic and 18 percent in spring 2021. Federal statistics on chronic absenteeism generally lag by at least two years, but data from the 2017-2018 school year showed that 8 million students were chronically absent.

Phyllis Jordan, the associate director of FutureEd, an education think tank at Georgetown University, pointed out that tracking attendance during remote schooling presented enormous challenges: “It was hard to define what attendance was. Was attendance just turning on your computer? Was it turning in your assignment? Was it talking to a teacher?” Jordan added that COVID-19 quarantines over the last two years have also contributed to absenteeism totals: “That’s an excused absence, but that’s still 10 days of lost instruction.” Even with the questions about tracking, she said it’s clear absenteeism has risen.

That poses real problems for students’ education. Research shows that absences in early years may be linked to low reading proficiency in third grade, and some studies have found that chronic absenteeism as early as sixth grade is linked to a lower likelihood of graduating.

According to a 2014 study, students with higher absentee rates scored 12-18 points lower on National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Researchers have found that students’ absenteeism can also have negative academic effects for their classmates.

Cecelia Leong, vice president of programs for Attendance Works, a group working to reduce chronic school absence, said health reasons such as asthma or untreated dental problems were often the top reason for student absences before the pandemic. In addition to missing school because of COVID-19 exposure or a positive test, more students appear to be struggling with anxiety and other emotional or mental health needs, sometimes keeping them from class.

English learners, students with disabilities, and students in poverty are more likely to miss more school. Robert Balfanz, the founder and director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, said the reasons students miss school generally fall into three categories: something keeps the student out of school (family responsibilities or jobs), the student avoids school because of a specific problem (bullying, lack of confidence in his own abilities), or the student becomes “disengaged.” The pandemic, Balfanz noted, exacerbated the difficulties in each area. For example, some students found that they enjoyed working at jobs they found during pandemic-related school closures—especially with minimum wage hikes. Other students needed to help with younger siblings. Others struggled to readjust to in-person schooling after learning virtually for months. For other students, leaving the school building left them feeling disconnected from school itself.

According to FutureEd, some schools have begun focusing on identifying students’ barriers to education—such as transportation or even access to laundry facilities—and working to meet needs on a case-by-case basis. Leong said that one California district instituted a second bus shift for students who missed the bus the first time. “If you missed the bus for whatever reason in the morning … you wouldn’t miss the whole day,” she explained.

Balfanz said some people think absenteeism is a mindset problem and that parents and children are responsible for their own attendance. But he added that many students face legitimate barriers, and communities as a whole suffer from students who don’t finish their education. “For communities to thrive, each generation has got to be prepared to support families,” he said. “And when there are things [that] get in the way of that … it’s everybody’s business.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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