Post-pandemic schooling is proving challenging for a number of reasons, from staffing shortages, to learning loss, to supply chain issues. Of growing concern, however, is a staggering jump in chronic absenteeism. Here, we examine national data that suggests the problem is deep and widespread.
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country, our public schools had to quickly adjust to new and creative ways of serving Maryland’s kids. As schools moved to virtual learning, the combined burdens of working from home, managing virtual learning, and caring for family resulted in some Maryland families turning to other options for schooling during the pandemic for a variety of reasons.
The mix of hybrid in-person/virtual schooling, temporary independent homeschooling, and general inconsistency in attendance during the pandemic has resulted in lower enrollment than predicted for the last two cycles.
National experts and leaders are now sounding the alarm on school attendance, with absenteeism even worse than previously thought. New nationwide data on public school attendance and absenteeism suggests that roughly double the amount of students were chronically absent during the COVID-19 pandemic than in previous years.
Digging into national data
The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) released updated national data on chronic absenteeism last month for the 2020-21 school year. That data is comprehensive and breaks down chronic absenteeism from each state — down to the district level, and by student demographics.
That data found that at least 10.1 million students were chronically absent during the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic (the 2020-2021 school year), missing at least 10% of the school year. This, according to expert analysis, is a “substantial increase from the approximately 8 million students chronically absent in the prior years.”
While the USDE data is helpful context, experts contend that it actually undercounts the problem of chronic absenteeism, which they say is likely double previous rates based on data from just four states — Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and California. Experts from Attendance Works noted that “Given the diversity of these states, this offers evidence that chronic absence has at least doubled nationwide.”
Attendance Works explains the startling implications of such high levels of chronic absenteeism:
This alarming increase in chronic absence has been occurring in tandem with significant declines in reading and math scores. Long term trend data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed the largest drop in decades: 9-year-old students scored 5 points lower in reading and 7 points lower in mathematics compared to peers in 2020.
The high levels of chronic absenteeism and new NAEP scores add to the existing body of research showing the adverse impact of chronic absence on achievement, student well-being and graduation rates. When combined, the two vividly illustrate the urgent need to invest in comprehensive efforts to ensure all students attend school regularly, especially those with the least access to equitable opportunities to learn.
Local government’s challenges — and opportunities
Baltimore City provides a good local example of how local government is challenged by and addressing chronic absenteeism head-on.
The Super Outreach Sunday phone bank program was recently launched by Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) in a push by the school system to connect with students who have already had 10 or more unexcused absences or have yet to attend school since the start of the 2022-23 school year four weeks ago. According to The Baltimore Sun, the program is attempting to contact more than 1300 students or their families who meet those criteria.
The phonebook program not only is hoping to get kids back into school, it’s also looking to connect students and their families with a variety of supportive resources to ultimately encourage their long-term attendance. Such resources include public bus tickets and food or childcare vouchers for families experiencing homelessness.