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Six hidden (and not-so-hidden) factors driving America’s student absenteeism crisis

Greg Toppo | November 30, 2023

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Eamonn Fitzmaurice/LA School Report

As schools continue to recover from the pandemic, there’s one troubling COVID symptom they can’t seem to shake: record-setting absenteeism.

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.

In New York City, the nation’s largest district, chronic absenteeism hit 40%, according to district officials, meaning some 375,000 students were regularly absent. In Washington, D.C., it hit 42.5%. In Detroit, it was 77%.

Data are just beginning to emerge for the most recent school year, but a few snapshots present a troubling picture:

  • In Oakland, Calif., district officials said 61% of students were chronically absent in the 2022-23 school year;
  • In Providence, R.I., the district in September said fully half of students missed at least 10 percent last year;
  • 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.

While many policymakers have cited disconnection from school as a key reason for the problem, others say it has different causes unique to the times we’re in — causes that educators have rarely had to deal with so fully until now, from the death of caregivers to rising teacher absences and even, for older students, a more attractive labor market.

Here, according to researchers, school officials and parents’ organizations, among others, are six hidden (and not-so-hidden) reasons that chronic absenteeism rates remain high.

1. Worsening mental health

In a recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, 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.

Keri Rodrigues

And after modest declines in 2019 and 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported record-high suicide deaths during the pandemic. Suicides are rising fastest among young people, among other groups.

“We’re in the middle of a mental health crisis for kids,” said Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union. She said mental health support, both in our public education system and larger health care system, is inadequate to deal with the crisis.

“Kids are literally refusing to go [to school]. That is a major issue that I hear from parents every day. ‘I can’t get my kid up. They do not want to go.’”

For many students, school has lost its value, she said, “because there’s not a lot of meat on the bone,” either because instruction has worsened or because many students feel they can do what’s required from home.

2. Death of caregivers

As many as 283,000 young people in the U.S. have lost one or both parents to the pandemic, researchers now estimate, with about 359,000 losing a primary or secondary caregiver, including a grandparent.

Those losses hit hardest in multigenerational, low-income households, since many grandparents and other relatives were playing caregiving roles, said Robert Balfanz, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education. “It now falls to the teenagers,” he said. Even those who don’t care for younger siblings may now need to do so for surviving parents or even grandparents, making school less of a priority.

3. Teacher absences

Among the most politically charged storylines to emerge from the pandemic was the that of teachers and other school staff pushing to ensure their safety, often by keeping schools operating remotely or demanding generous COVID-related sick-day policies.

The result has been an explosion of teacher absenteeism alongside that of students. In Illinois, just 66% of teachers had fewer than 10 absences in 2022. In one suburban district west of Chicago, it was even lower at just 54% of teachers.

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.

That makes school a lot less valuable for students, said Rodrigues. “What we saw in COVID is how little instruction many of our kids are actually getting,” she said. “And so it’s very hard as a parent to make the argument: ‘No, you’ve got to go. This is important for your future,’ when all you’re doing there is sitting and watching a movie because you have a sub again and again and again.”

4. Remote assignments

While many students struggled to keep up with schoolwork during the pandemic, the experience revolutionized schools’ thinking about remote learning. Most significantly, it gave students the ability to complete classwork entirely at home, without stepping into the school building. In many districts, schools have continued to allow students to, in essence, work from home like their parents.

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.

“Kids don’t see why they can’t work from home,” said Tim Daly, former president of TNTP and co-founder of the consulting firm EdNavigator. In a recent issue of his newsletter, Daly noted that when students miss a day of school, “all the work is available online in real-time, making it simple for a student to complete it all from home before the day is even done.”

Given the low quality of instruction that many parents saw during the pandemic, he said, parents now are less likely to worry if their child is missing a day. “Sitting in a desk for six hours a day,” he wrote, “is for suckers.”

Student testimonials bear that out, said Montgomery County’s Neff.

Students in focus groups now tell administrators that five-day-a-week attendance now seems optional, he said. “They’ve told us repeatedly, ‘We got so used to a year-and-a-half or more taking classes, sitting on our bed in our pajamas on our computer.’ And many of them are continuing a struggle to get back into school regularly.”

​​A few observers say schools allowing students to do more work from home is worsening the chronic absenteeism problem (Paul Bersebach/Getty Images)

Students who learned reasonably well at home, he said, now wonder, “‘Why are you telling me now I have to sit in seven periods a day for five days a week?’

At one of the nation’s most renowned suburban high schools, New Trier High School near Chicago, the percentage of chronically absent students rose to more than 25% last winter, the Chicago Tribune reported. Absenteeism rose as students got older, officials noted, with rates of just over 14% for freshmen but nearly 38% for seniors.

By late May, even the student editors of the school newspaper declared that they had had enough: “While this trend isn’t unique to New Trier,” they wrote in an editorial, “it’s also not acceptable. We believe that both the school and students need to do more.”

Jean Hahn, a New Trier board member, last spring pointed out that many adults now work remotely. “So many of us don’t have to be at our desk 9-5 Monday through Friday anymore,” Hahn told attendees at a board meeting. “It’s challenging for parents to explain to our young people why they do.”

5. A higher minimum wage

Over the past few years, more than half of the 50 states have been in a kind of arms race to raise their minimum wage, tempting teens to trim their school hours or drop out altogether to help their families get by.

While the federal minimum wage since 2009 has remained $7.25, 30 states have set theirs higher, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. While just four states and the District of Columbia now guarantee a minimum wage at or above $15, eight states are on pace to get there by 2026 or sooner.

Chicago’s minimum wage is $15.80 for many large businesses, prompting a few observers to say that higher wages are worsening schools’ chronic absenteeism problems (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In states offering $15 an hour, said Hopkins’ Balfanz, this likely made the absentee problem worse.

“That’s real money to a 17-year-old,” he said, offering them both a bit of personal agency and the opportunity to help out their families. “Things that did not make sense at $6 an hour do make sense, then, at $15.”

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.”

6. Better record-keeping

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.

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act on Dec. 10, 2015, which allowed states for the first time to make chronic absenteeism part of their school quality indicators (NurPhoto/Getty Images)

But here’s the thing: A decade ago, few schools even kept track of chronic absenteeism. Most states didn’t actively track it until 2016, when new flexibility under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act allowed them to choose indicators of school quality according to their own desired outcomes. That’s when about 30 states made it an indicator in their accountability systems — and on school report cards.

Before that, Balfanz said, school districts typically measured average daily attendance, which could actually mask high chronic absenteeism that lurked around the edges. It’s mathematically possible, he said, to have an average daily attendance of 92% “but still have a fifth of your kids missing a month of school. Different kids on different days are making up that 92%.”

So by 2020, when the pandemic hit, schools had only been tracking it for a few years and had few good strategies to address it, Balfanz said. “It’s relatively new. And then the pandemic spread it everywhere.”

Where do we go from here?

At New Trier, student pressure eventually paid off, resulting in a new plan this fall: In preparation for the 2023-24 school year, a school committee recommended more stringent policies for absences, including just five “mental health days” per year. It also bans students from participating in extracurriculars if they’re not in class that day. They’ll get an email by 3:15 p.m. notifying them not to show up to sports or other activities.

Simple interventions can also help: A 2018 study found that offering parents personalized nudges by mail about their kids’ absences reduced chronic absenteeism by 10% or more, partly by correcting parents’ incorrect beliefs that their kids hadn’t missed as much school as they actually had — research shows that both parents and students underestimate it by nearly 50%.

That’s probably preferable to how many schools attack the problem, via “supportive” phone calls home, said Hopkins’ Balfanz. “Who’s going to make 150 phone calls a day in a school?” he said. “If you have that one person assigned to it, they literally would be spending the whole day calling.”

EdNavigator’s Daly says schools should reset the discussion around attendance, urging parents to let their kids miss school as rarely as possible and communicate honestly about absentee rates.

Neff, the Montgomery County attendance services director, said transparency “increases the urgency in all of us” and is essential if schools want to get parents on board.

“In order to fully have them understand the gravity of the situation, we needed to show them: ‘Here is our data. Here is where it was, here is where it is and where it is for certain groups. We need your help to fix this.’ ”

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