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Absenteeism: Urgent Call for Action to Address Growing Education Crisis
During my childhood, attending school was not optional for me. Unless I was too sick to get out of bed, I always went to school. There was no “Price Is Right” on the couch for me. Schools emphasized the importance of showing up, and even rewarded perfect attendance with free bikes.
However, the data now shows that parents are more lenient when it comes to their children’s attendance, and this is detrimental to the kids.
A recent release of data by the Indiana Department of Education shocked many people. According to the data, about 40% of students in Indiana missed 10 or more school days last year, and almost one in five were absent for at least 18 days.
In the 2018-19 school year, the chronic absentee rate was only 11.2%. However, it increased to 18.5% in the 2020-21 school year, which was the first year after the pandemic. Then, it reached its highest point at 21.1% in the 2021-22 school year, as per state data.
In the 2022-23 data, it was found that 19.3% of students were chronically absent from school.
To put these percentages into concrete numbers, approximately 221,000 students in Indiana were considered chronically absent during the last academic year.
More than 400,000 students missed at least 10 days of school, which classified them as “habitually absent” under Indiana statute.
This trend is not limited to Indiana alone. Nationwide, the chronic absenteeism rate has drastically increased since the pandemic, rising from 16% in 2019 to an estimated 33% in 2022. This is the highest rate recorded since the U.S. Department of Education first measured chronic absenteeism in 2016.
Reasons Behind the Increase
So, the question arises, why is this happening?
There are always obstacles, especially for children living in poverty. Transportation is one particularly challenging area, as there is an increasing problem of bus driver shortages, leading to last-minute cancellations and parents having no backup plans.
However, there is a clear correlation with the pandemic. In 2020, when schools sent students home for much of the year, it was the right decision at the time. With hindsight, we now have a better understanding, but back then, COVID-19 was a new virus that no one had experience dealing with. Officials did their best with limited and evolving information.
Schools quickly transitioned to remote instruction, and students, parents, and educators navigated through the challenges.
However, parents and students seemingly took away from the pandemic that missing school is not a big deal. They can now communicate through email, receive assignments, and submit them electronically. Even snow days are now converted into e-learning days.
While technology is a useful tool, it should be used sparingly. Being physically present in the classroom has a direct correlation to academic success.
A recent White House release highlighted that research demonstrates the toll school absences take on grades and performance in standardized tests. Furthermore, irregular attendance can be an early indicator of high school dropout, which is associated with limited job prospects, poorer health, and increased involvement in the criminal justice system.
It is evident that schools need to do more to encourage attendance, starting with direct outreach to parents.
One suggestion from the U.S. Department of Education is to use “nudging” techniques. This could involve sending families periodic postcards with student attendance records or encouraging consistent attendance to reduce absenteeism. Sending weekly updates on missed assignments or absences could also be helpful.
Perhaps some parents are not fully aware of their child’s absences and would be surprised to learn about the high number when confronted with it. Anecdotally, I know that parents nowadays more frequently take their children out of school for vacations compared to the past. Rather than resorting to this as a first option, it should be considered as a last resort. There are plenty of other days off to plan family activities around.
Education officials should also investigate whether transportation shortages are contributing to these absences and provide recommendations to lawmakers for the 2024 session. Additionally, the state could consider incentivizing attendance with scholarships or grants. All possibilities should be explored, even if they require financial investment.
Unfortunately, law enforcement has a role to play as well. It is unclear whether there has been an increase or decrease in truancy enforcement, as data is not readily available. However, there are laws regarding parental responsibility, and they should be enforced.
School resource officers, who are already present in many schools, could be a starting point for engaging with parents regarding attendance.
All these actions need to be taken swiftly to prevent further learning losses.