More Pandemic Fallout: The Chronically Absent Student!

Groundbreaking Johns Hopkins analysis shows national scale of chronic  student absence - JHU School of Education

Dear Commons Community,

“Chronic absence has skyrocketed” during the pandemic, said Hedy Chang, the director of Attendance Works, a national group that promotes solutions to chronic absenteeism, which has been linked to weaker academic performance and can predict whether a student is more likely to drop out before finishing high school. Chronic absence is often defined as missing 10 percent of the days in a school year, whether the absences are excused or not.

The rate of chronic absenteeism among New York City public-school students has risen to a staggering 40 percent.

With 938,000 students enrolled in NYC’s schools, that means some 375,000 kids are missing too much school and falling too far behind.

But that number is likely an undercount because students out with COVID or quarantined could be marked present if they logged in online or had minimal contact with a teacher.

Rates of absenteeism can be hard to compare nationally because schools do not report the data in the same way, nor on the same timetable. But according to a December report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which defined chronic absenteeism as missing 15 school days per year, the percentage of students who were on track to be chronically absent was about 22 percent — more than double the rate of chronically absent students before the pandemic.

“While absenteeism rates for high-income students are leveling off, rates for low-income students have continued to worsen since the spring,” the report added.

“What we know,” Dr. Chang said, “is that chronic absence is exacerbating existing inequities.”

For school districts, attendance is a knotty problem. Showing up to class is fundamental to learning, but schools have little control over absences and solving the problem is not easy. Chronic absenteeism can stem from a variety of issues including instability at home, work obligations or illness.

In Connecticut, state data shows that chronic absenteeism soared during the pandemic, especially for Black, Latino and Native American students. This year in Hartford, where children of color make up a vast majority of the student body, the pandemic has disrupted years of effort to push that figure down, said Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, the superintendent of Hartford Public Schools.

“You feel that in the hallways,” she said. “You hear teachers saying to students: ‘I’ve missed you. Where have you been?’”

The district collected data on students’ reasons for absences and found that the most common included illnesses and quarantines, whether Covid-related or not; transportation difficulties, sometimes exacerbated by safety concerns or bad weather; suspensions over students’ behavior; and appointments outside of school, for example with doctors or social workers.

“We look at the barriers,” said Marjorie Rice, the principal of McDonough. “What we can remove, we remove.”

In Washington County, Md., the rate of public school students who were chronically absent rose to about 38 percent during the first semester of this school year — more than double the rate from a comparable time period before the pandemic.

The absences appear to have been driven in part by depression and anxiety among students, cases of which skyrocketed during the pandemic and are now overwhelming health care providers, according to Jeremy Jakoby, the district’s director of student services.

“Kids aren’t showing up as much as they used to,” said Leilani Ciampo, 14, a high school freshman in Washington County. Some students, she said, have jobs during the day, while others have simply fallen out of the habit of coming to class after months of online learning.

“And some of them get Covid,” she added.

This is a critical problem for our public schools that will not be going away anytime soon!


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