Chronic Absenteeism and Six Factors that Cause It

Chronic absenteeism is up in America post-pandemic. Here are some factors experts say increase the phenomena.

Chronic absenteeism in America’s public schools raises alarms for local, state, and federal experts alike. To be considered “chronically absent,” a student has to miss at least 10% of school days in a school calendar year. In Maryland, full-time student enrollment plays a large role in determining funding requirements for a school system.

According to new data, the proportion of American public school students attending schools with chronic absenteeism has doubled since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Education policy and reporting site The74 recently reported on the growing issue:

In the 2021-22 school year, more than one in four U.S. public school students missed at least 10% of school days. Before the pandemic, it was closer to one in seven, the Associated Press reported, relying on data from 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Montgomery County, Maryland, served as one example of school systems facing challenges with chronic absenteeism:

And in suburban Montgomery County, Md., near Washington, D.C., about 27% of students were chronically absent last year, up from 20% four years earlier. As elsewhere, high school students were more likely to be chronically absent.

That article identified what it calls “six hidden (and not-so-hidden) factors driving the nation’s chronic absenteeism issue.

Worsening mental health: Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, argues that for many students, school has lost its value “because there’s not a lot of meat on the bone.” She says this is either because in-classroom instruction has worsened or because many students feel they can do what’s required from home. This coincides with worsening student mental health: “70% of public schools reported an increase in the percentage of students seeking mental health services at school since the start of the pandemic; 76% reported an increase in staff voicing concerns about students with symptoms of depression, anxiety and trauma.”

Death of caregivers: According to pandemic data, as many as 283,000 young people in the U.S. have lost one or both parents, with about 359,000 losing a primary or secondary caregiver (like a grandparent). Experts suggest that this has resulted in many American youth — especially lower income and those in multigenerational homes — now having to care for younger siblings and/or parents or grandparents, putting school on the back burner.

Teacher absences: Like students, teachers are chronically absent at high rates post-pandemic, while school systems struggle to hire and retain staff, including substitute teachers. According to experts, this combination makes school “a lot less valuable” for America’s students. The74 reported:

A May 2022 federal survey found that chronic teacher absenteeism during the 2021-22 school year had increased in 72% of schools, compared to a typical pre-pandemic school year. In 37% of schools, teacher absenteeism increased “a lot.”

Simultaneously, it found, 60% of schools nationwide found it harder to find substitute teachers. And when subs couldn’t be found, 73% of schools brought in administrators to cover classes.

Remote assignments: The pivot to virtual learning during the pandemic has lasted beyond the emergency, and many districts still allow students to learn remotely. The74 reports: “Combined with looser rules around sick-day attendance, observers say, this has resulted in millions of students — and their parents — deciding that five-day-a-week school attendance is no longer mandatory.” Furthermore, “students in focus groups now tell administrators that five-day-a-week attendance now seems optional.”

A higher minimum wage: With states raising minimum wage, some older students find work more worthy of their time and effort than school. “In states offering $15 an hour … this likely made the absentee problem worse.”

Steven Neff, director of pupil personnel and attendance services for Montgomery County Public Schools, the suburban D.C. district, said students ‘are telling us that there is great value in being able to have a job that is paying reasonably well.’ Minimum wage work, he said, now ‘has even greater financial enticements than when I think about minimum wage when I was their age.’

Better record-keeping: The74 reports, “One reason why chronic absenteeism seems to be spreading may have less to do with actual attendance and more with better record-keeping by districts and states. Until recently, researchers found that the problem was often confined mostly to high-poverty neighborhoods.”

Read the full article from The74.

At the MACo Winter Conference general session, “Education Reform: The Blueprint for the Blueprint,” county and state leaders in education will examine Blueprint implementation, challenges that remain, and where Maryland is landing as it tries to reach the landmark law’s goals for public education. Speakers include representatives of key partnerships, county officials working closely “on the ground” to implement the education reform law, and other leaders.

Learn more about MACo’s Winter Conference: