Why so many kids are still missing school

An illustration shows several children writing and reading at school desks. Some children are negative-space silhouettes, showing that they are missing from class.
Marta Monteiro for Vox

What it means to be “chronically absent” — and why it matters.

When schools reopened their doors after the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, eager to “return to normal,” millions of students didn’t show up. Teachers prepared their classrooms to welcome children back to in-person learning, but millions of desks were unfilled. With an eye toward pandemic recovery, the government allocated billions of dollars to help students regain what they lost at the height of the pandemic, but many of them weren’t there to receive the aid.

Many of them were absent — and still are.

Some of the latest absenteeism data reveals the staggering impact the pandemic has had on student attendance.

Before the pandemic, during the 2015–16 school year, an estimated 7.3 million students were deemed “chronically absent,” meaning they had missed at least three weeks of school in an academic year. (According to the US Department of Education, there were 50.33 million K-12 students that year.) After the pandemic, the number of absent students has almost doubled.

Chronic absenteeism increased in every state where data was made public, and in Washington, DC, between the last pre-pandemic school year, 2018–19, and the 2021–22 school year, according to data from Future Ed, an education think tank. Locations with the highest increases saw their rates more than double. In California, for example, the pre-pandemic chronic absenteeism rate stood at 12.1 percent in 2018–19 and jumped to 30 percent in the 2021–22 school year. New Mexico experienced one of the largest increases, with the rate jumping from 18 percent before the pandemic to 40 percent after the pandemic.

There is so far some evidence, based on new state data from the 2022–23 school year, that attendance rates are rebounding, albeit slightly. Though chronic absenteeism rates remain notably higher than pre-pandemic levels, nearly two dozen states have reported decreases. Of the 31 states and Washington, DC, that have made data public, 21 reported moderate decreases of 5 percentage points or fewer. Michigan saw the greatest drop in chronic absenteeism, with a nearly 8 percentage-point decrease. But its 2022–23 rate, 30.8 percent, remains far above its pre-pandemic rate of 20 percent.

Experts point to deeper issues, some that have long troubled students and schools and others that are only now apparent in the aftermath of school shutdowns.

“When you see these high levels of chronic absence, it’s a reflection that the positive conditions of learning that are essential for motivating kids to show up to school have been eroded,” said Hedy Chang, the founder and executive director of Attendance Works, an organization that tracks attendance data and helps states address chronic absenteeism. “It’s a sign that kids aren’t feeling physically and emotionally healthy and safe. Belonging, connection, and support — in addition to the academic challenge and engagement and investments in student and adult well-being — are all so crucial to positive conditions for learning.”

Despite increased attention to the topic, chronic absenteeism is not exactly new — until recently, it was considered a “hidden educational crisis.”

“This has been an ongoing issue and it didn’t just all of a sudden appear because the pandemic arose. Folks have been trying to address this issue for years,” said Joshua Childs, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies absenteeism interventions in communities and states. “It’s historically mainly impacted students from disadvantaged communities and underserved populations.”

What’s new about chronic absenteeism is that it now affects students from a variety of demographic backgrounds, from those in the suburbs and rural areas to those in cities.

“Before the pandemic [there were] high levels of chronic absence for students with high needs: special education, who have [individual education plans], English learners, or free and reduced lunch students,” said Kari Sullivan Custer, an education consultant for attendance and engagement at the Connecticut State Department of Education. Though Connecticut has been lauded for its initiatives to track and address chronic absences, the pandemic still presented a significant roadblock. “The [state’s] opportunity districts had higher chronic absence rates prior to the pandemic, but once the pandemic hit, we started to see chronic absence rates escalate everywhere.”

The root causes of chronic absenteeism are vast. Poverty, illness, and a lack of child care and social services remain contributors to poor attendance, and some communities continue to struggle with transportation challenges; the pandemic has brought on a youth mental health crisis that has caused students to miss school; parents have reframed how they think about illness, ready to keep their children home at the slightest signs of sickness.

The evidence has long been clear that absences contribute to lower achievement and worsen long-term economic outcomes for individual students and the country. Poor attendance influences whether a child can read proficiently by the end of third grade. By sixth grade, chronic absenteeism signals that a student might drop out of high school.

“What we’re seeing is a large-scale failure for a substantial number of our students to reengage,” said Thomas Dee, a Stanford economist and the Barnett Family Professor of Education. “And it’s a very serious problem because we’re in the middle of a very important effort to try to address the educational harm that has unfairly fallen on this generation of students.”

There is hope. Chronic absenteeism can be addressed with preventative measures at the school level and with targeted approaches that meet students and families where they are. The pandemic has laid bare the reality that schools need to engage students and families with lessons and facilities that make children want to be there.

“What we’re seeing is a large-scale failure for a substantial number of our students to reengage”

“When we looked at the fall [2020] data and we realized that kids were not coming back to school and that they were falling behind in their learning, we knew we had to do something,” said Sullivan Custer. “Families were isolated. Families in our urban areas and other places were doubled up and there were a lot of people in a house, getting sick or, unfortunately, passing away from Covid. People were scared. And we wanted to reengage families with the school and to find out what’s happening with them. … [So we] put boots on the ground to go out and reach out to these families to say, ‘Hey, how are you? How can we help?’”

What exactly is chronic absenteeism, and why does it matter?

A student is considered chronically absent when they miss 10 percent or more of the school year for any reason. The average school year for most schools across the country is 180 days long, which means that a chronically absent student typically misses at least 18 days of school or at least two days per month. Those absences can be for any reason.

Policymakers and researchers began using chronic absenteeism — rather than truancy, or unexcused absences — as a measure about 15 years ago. In a 2008 report, researchers found that students who miss nearly a month of school, or 10 percent of school days, are worse off academically. They also learned that absences in the early grades add up and have a negative effect on learning later on. Students who are chronically absent in kindergarten showed “lower achievement” in math, reading, and general knowledge in first grade, the researchers found.

“What we were trying to hit upon was a measure that predicted academic challenge,” said Chang, who helped research and popularize the concept. “But it’s also a common sense metric that people can use to notice early on when they can take action and prevent a child from becoming chronically absent for the entire school year.”

Chronic absenteeism and truancy are not interchangeable. Truancy only measures unexcused absences while chronic absenteeism measures unexcused and excused absences.

It may seem obvious that missing days of school might lead to worse academic outcomes for students, but schools didn’t draw causal conclusions about absenteeism until they were pushed to collect the data and analyze it. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which President Obama signed into law in 2015, states were required to publicly report on five measures of student success. By 2017, almost all states decided to collect and report on chronic absenteeism as a way to measure student success or school quality and continue to do so today.

According to Chang, used to collect attendance on paper and simply used the “average daily attendance” measure — how many students show up on a given day — or a tally of unexcused absences. These methods overlook chronic absences. With classes as large as 30 students, it might be easy for a teacher to miss attendance patterns earlier in the school year.

“People don’t realize how easily absences can add up. … When we think about a kid who misses school often, we might think about the kid who missed a week or two,” said Chang. “What we’re not always thinking about is the kid [who misses] one day here and another day here. And by the end of the year, you’ve added up to so much time lost in the classroom that you’re actually academically at risk.”

Paying closer attention to chronic absenteeism is not meant to be a scarlet letter for students but simply a way for educators to take note of the kind of outreach students and families might need.

Chronic absenteeism worsens existing problems and can lead to poor academic and long-term economic outcomes for students at all grade levels. Students who are chronically absent in early grades can set off a domino effect of negative consequences: Chronically absent preschoolers are more likely to have difficulty reading on grade level by the second grade.

And if they still can’t read on grade level by fourth grade, they are more likely to drop out of high school, which decreases their earning potential later on in life. For older students, each week of absences per semester in ninth grade is connected to a more than 20 percentage-point decline in the probability of graduating from high school, University of Chicago researchers observed about Chicago students. By comparison, “college-ready students,” those who are likely to enroll and persist in college, have average attendance rates of 98 percent, meaning they miss less than a week over the course of an entire school year.

Constant absences create chaotic classroom environments, with teachers needing to help students make up missed work or missing students disrupting the balance of classrooms that might be necessary for certain lessons. Chronic absenteeism increases educational inequality since it has risen more among disadvantaged students, particularly those with disabilities and those from lower-income households.

There are other less explored areas when it comes to the impact of absences. “We need to talk more about what this means for the trajectory of students beyond their time in K-12,” said Childs. “What might their post-secondary education look like or how will this affect their ability to get and keep a job?”

What the latest chronic absenteeism numbers tell us about attendance

The latest data point to a rise in chronic absenteeism that won’t rebound without concerted efforts to get students back into classrooms each day.

Dee collected data from 40 states and Washington, DC, which collectively serve more than 92 percent of all K-12 public school students in the country. He examined changes between the last school year before the start of the pandemic, 2018–19, and the last year for which comprehensive data is available, 2021–22, and found that chronic absenteeism increased in every state between 4 to 23 percentage points.

The overall chronic absenteeism rate was 14.8 percent in 2018–19 and jumped to 28.3 percent in 2021–22, as students returned to in-person learning.

Between those school years, the number of students who were chronically absent grew by 13.5 percentage points, with an additional 6.5 million students considered chronically absent, according to Dee’s research.

New Mexico experienced the highest increase, a 22.5 percentage-point jump, from about 18 percent to 40 percent between those two school years. Alaska, which had the highest chronic absenteeism rate at about 48.5 percent in 2021–22, experienced a similar rate of increase. Washington, DC, had the second highest rate of chronic absenteeism at 48 percent.

Dee also found that this increase in absenteeism occurred outside of enrollment loss, Covid-19 case rates, and school masking policies. According to Dee’s analysis, the growth in chronic absenteeism was on average similar across states with different masking rules and the spike in chronic absenteeism can’t all be explained by Covid-19 illness and a delay in students returning to in-person learning.

When Dee analyzed data at the district level, he determined that the increases in chronic absenteeism, though similar for male and female students, were larger for low-income students as well as Black and Hispanic students.

“I looked across a number of states and chronic absenteeism was consistently larger among minoritized students, and also among economically disadvantaged students,” said Dee. “That being said, it was also quite broad, even among students who were not economically disadvantaged and among white students, where we saw substantial increases.”

Chang found similar patterns in the data.

“High levels of chronic absence are especially concentrated in places that are economically challenged,” she said. About 69 percent of schools in which 75 percent of their students take free and reduced price lunch now have extreme levels of chronic absence whereas only about a quarter did before the pandemic, according to Chang.

“chronic absenteeism was consistently larger among minoritized students, and also among economically disadvantaged students”

When it comes to race and ethnicity, Native American, Pacific Islander, Latino, and African American kids are disproportionately affected by chronic absenteeism.

There has also been a shift for English learners, 36 percent of whom are now chronically absent, Chang said.

“In California, for example, it used to be that young English language learners, let’s say kindergarteners, were actually not really more likely than English-speaking peers to be chronically absent. And in some communities they actually showed up more often,” Chang said. “That is no longer the case. Something happened [in] the relationship between English learner families and schools. I think it is connected to who got heavily affected by the pandemic. They were essential workers.”

In addition, there were changes by grade level. There have typically been higher levels of absences in middle and high school, and they remain heavily impacted, but the largest increase in absences is happening in elementary schools. Before the pandemic, there were about 3,550 elementary schools with extreme levels of chronic absence, meaning 30 percent or more of their kids were chronically absent. Now, close to 20,000 elementary schools have 30 percent or more of their students deemed chronically absent.

High levels of chronic absenteeism don’t just affect the children who are absent. “The churn is affecting the learning experience [and] the teaching experience of everyone in the school,” Chang said.

What’s behind the chronic absenteeism surge

By many measures, the pandemic has been education’s most substantial disruption for the way it impacted students of all backgrounds. When it comes to attendance, the pandemic disrupted habits, exacerbating traditional causes of chronic absence and introducing new ones.

Reasons for missing school fall into four categories, according to Attendance Works: “barriers,” “aversion to school,” “disengagement,” and “misconceptions about the purpose of attendance.”

Barriers include illness, poor transportation, neighborhood violence, housing and food insecurity, and responsibilities at home. Asthma, which is more prevalent among low-income and racial and ethnic minority students and students in urban areas, is the leading chronic illness that forces kids to miss school. Some studies have found that students who take the school bus have fewer absences while another linked long bus rides to chronic absenteeism.

Low-income parents with young children lack access to affordable child care and sometimes resort to having older children look after younger siblings at home. These students deprioritize school to meet family responsibilities.

“Students missing in urban areas might be working jobs or having health care issues like asthma and obesity. Students in suburban areas may be considered chronically absent but they’re missing school for reasons like college visits and family vacations,” said Childs. “What it means to be chronically absent can be different based on where students live, the type of school they’re in, and the resources that they have access to.”

Students who are school averse struggle with academic or behavioral challenges; they might not feel like they fit in socially and face anxiety as a result. The NIH found that young people reported greater anxiety and depression after the pandemic. An EdWeek Research Center survey conducted between August and September 2023 of more than 1,000 high schoolers found that anxiety, aside from bad weather, was a top reason they missed school. Bullying may create an unwelcoming school environment and force kids to stay home. Students with undiagnosed disabilities and unmet disability needs are also likelier to stay home.

Studies have found that when students find classroom lessons to be boring, unchallenging, or culturally unresponsive, they might stay away from school.

Ultimately, if families don’t understand the impact of even a few absences, the importance of school attendance won’t be prioritized at home. Some parents might think that missing two days of school each month is no big deal or that attendance only matters at higher grade levels. Others might believe that excused absences don’t matter, unaware of how broader absence patterns form.

Some education leaders warn that the pandemic changed the way parents and students think about school. Attendance is now viewed as optional for some parents, while others have grown more sensitive to the slightest signs of illness in their children.

In August, the chief medical director for the Los Angeles Unified School District posted an online notice to parents stating that it is “not practical for working parents to keep children home from school for every runny nose” and that it is not “in the best interest of children to continue to miss school after pandemic school closures.” The district, which has seen a large spike in absenteeism related to student medical issues, instructed parents to send kids to school if they test negative for Covid-19, where they can wear a mask if they have mild symptoms.

District leaders have recognized that because there are so many different reasons why students miss school, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to solving chronic absenteeism. When the Connecticut State Department of Education conducted a summer 2023 survey of families and received 5,400 responses in English and Spanish, they realized the full extent of the challenges families faced, from RSV and the flu to allergies and mental health roadblocks. “Kids had kind of gotten used to not having to go to school every day for all of these reasons,” said Sullivan Custer. “And a lot of parents stay home for work now, too. We fell out of that habit and practice of get up, get ready, and go. Getting everybody to come back has been part of the challenge.”

States are already putting new initiatives to the test

Experts fear that federal, state, and local investments in academic recovery won’t work if students aren’t there to benefit from them. Through the American Rescue Plan, the federal government has invested nearly $190 billion to support academic recovery efforts across all states. The education relief package is intended to help bolster pandemic response efforts, provide fiscal relief to state and school budgets, and support student academic and mental health recovery efforts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. States reported that they planned to use most of the money on academic interventions such as tutoring and hiring more educators and other staff.

“Educators are facing these challenges at a time when the resources available then for them to do this may be vanishing due to the so-called fiscal cliff,” said Dee. “This is a critique of states and districts that have had these resources for years and have been slow to spend them or to spend them with transparency. But we’re now in a position where these very serious educational challenges remain, but the resources available to meet those challenges are going to disappear.”

Some states and localities are already responding to the rise in chronic absenteeism. Connecticut used $10.7 million in Covid-19 relief money to develop a home visit program that addressed more than 8,600 students in 15 opportunity zones. An analysis found that the home visits increased individual students’ attendance rate by about 4 percentage points in the month right after the visit and continued to increase in the months after. Connecticut’s chronic absenteeism rate shot up from 10 percent in 2018–19 to 24 percent during the 2021–22 school year. It slightly decreased to 20 percent in 2022–23.

“we’re now in a position where these very serious educational challenges remain, but the resources available to meet those challenges are going to disappear”

A core purpose of the home visits was to build relationships with students and their families to understand their barriers, find solutions, and not place blame. Leaders expect the absenteeism rate to continue to decrease in the coming years.

Other states, including Maine and New Jersey, are launching similar efforts and setting up attendance teams in schools to analyze attendance data and develop solutions to meet student needs.

New Mexico state guidance requires school districts to create an attendance plan that includes tiered interventions, starting with prevention efforts for all students and shifting to intensive ones that target students facing severe challenges. One Detroit school paired chronically absent students with adult mentors in the school building, developed a home visitation system, tracked attendance patterns, and provided incentives such as trips to the movies for students and food shopping gift cards for parents. Previous reports identified transportation challenges as a leading cause of chronic absenteeism in Detroit.

Experts agree that punitive responses to chronic absenteeism only damage school relationships with students and families. Fines alienate families and suspensions only cause students to miss more days.

It’s also about meeting families where they are. “As researchers we can point to the high numbers and shout about all the kids who are missing and how this is bad and problematic,” said Childs. “But to a family that’s got to make a decision about whether you can put food on the table or attend school, there are some clear choices around that.”

Despite these efforts, chronic absenteeism still plagues school districts — a sign that battling it will take time and consistent effort. Leaders in Santa Fe hired new attendance coaches and offered students incentives, such as a pop-up science exhibit, to improve their attendance in response to their 2021–22 rate, yet just over half of students remained chronically absent in the 2022–23 year, according to Chalkbeat. After the start of the pandemic, New Mexico’s absenteeism rate rose to 40 percent and remained at 39 percent the following school year. Before the pandemic, it was at 18 percent. The results prove that there is no immediate fix to chronic absenteeism. “We know we still have work to do,” Crystal Ybarra, the Santa Fe school district’s chief equity, diversity, and engagement officer, told Chalkbeat. “We’re still trying to figure out the steps post-pandemic. Everybody wants to see a quick fix, and that’s just not how initiatives work.”

Schools have also tried a number of other creative ideas, from increasing teacher pay to upgrading facilities. Others have increased correspondence with families by sending postcards and text messages, which has proven effective.

To address transportation issues, some schools are adding bus stops for various neighborhoods or arranging chaperoned walking groups. Other schools have recognized how food insecurity affects their students and that free breakfast is necessary. Laundry rooms at schools is a novel strategy that has helped some chronically absent students who don’t have access to washing machines at home. Some community schools have beaten chronic absenteeism by giving families access to the resources they need, all on one campus.

There are so many crises in education, researchers told Vox, and it’s key to not lose sight of progress.

“[We need] celebrations, [for] who’s doing well, those students who have improved attendance … those schools that are seeing a difference,” Sullivan Custer said. “Just seeing that it can be done, it’s not hopeless … We definitely have the ability to turn this around. It might take a little while, but we’re just going to keep right at it, being positive and focusing on the successes.”

By: Fabiola Cineas
Title: Why so many kids are still missing school
Sourced From: www.vox.com/2024/1/9/23904542/chronic-absenteeism-school-attendance
Published Date: Tue, 09 Jan 2024 11:30:00 +0000

Read More

+ posts

I'm a writer for lifestyle publications, and when I'm not crafting stories, you'll find me cherishing moments with my family, including my lovely daughter. My heart also belongs to my pets—Sushi, Snowy, Belle, and Pepper. Besides writing, I enjoy watching movies and exploring new places through travel.