Chronic absenteeism in schools identified as major challenge: Five underlying reasons for student absences

Cur’ra McCoy, a Baltimore teen, is part of the numerous students who missed several weeks of school recently. Instead of attending classes, she often opted to sleep in or play on her phone, engaging in activities that didn’t contribute much. McCoy attributed her absences to boredom, resulting in poor academic performance and a growing disdain for school. 

“When I’m not engaged, I lose all motivation to do anything,” explained the 18-year-old. “So I eventually gave up trying.”

Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing at least 10% of the school year, has surged in America’s educational system. Despite expectations of enhanced attendance following the pandemic’s disruptions, chronic absenteeism has escalated, nearly doubling from 15% to 26% between 2018 and 2023.

This issue, identified as a major challenge during the recent school year, is not confined to low-income students but affects a broad spectrum of the student population. It has been labeled by the American Enterprise Institute as “the biggest problem facing schools right now.” 

The underlying causes for this critical problem are typically intricate and multidimensional. Here are five primary rationales: 

The Impact of COVID on School AttendanceWhy aren’t children (or teachers) returning to school?

Kids’ Disengagement and Boredom

Reflecting on her past interest in math, McCoy cherished its simplicity and universal nature during her early years. However, as she progressed, she felt a decline in enthusiasm, finding the instruction dull and draining her motivation. By eighth grade, she abandoned math entirely, leading to academic struggles in high school.

McCoy emphasized the value of personalized support, mentioning that she excels with individual attention. Her involvement with Concentric Educational Solutions, where she received tutoring and mentorship, significantly improved her attendance and academic performance. McCoy’s success story culminated in early graduation this month, aspiring to pursue a career in engineering.

A nationwide survey conducted in April revealed that nearly 2 out of 3 teenagers find school tedious. A significant portion expressed dissatisfaction with school, with nearly a third viewing it as a waste of time. Such disengagement fosters absenteeism, a phenomenon exacerbated by ineffective school interventions like truancy fines.

Mental Health Struggles

A considerable number of students skip school due to mental health issues, particularly adolescents. In a 2021 survey, over 40% of teenagers reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. An analysis in Los Angeles highlighted anxiety and depression as key health-related causes of absenteeism. 

School avoidance, characterized by a child’s reluctance or inability to attend school, has emerged as a significant concern, with effects magnified post-pandemic. Instances like Anna’s, who experienced physical symptoms and emotional distress, underscore the severity of mental health challenges affecting school attendance.

Addressing BullyingSchool avoidance amplifies mental health crises.

Impacts of Bullying

The pervasive issue of bullying contributes to school absenteeism, with only a third of teenagers feeling their schools adequately address this concern. Research indicates that bullying victims are more inclined to miss school, invoking emotional distress and social isolation. 

In a recent NPR segment, Neomi, a sophomore from Colorado, shared the emotional toll of bullying and social exclusion following a breakup, resulting in chronic absenteeism. The lack of adult support exacerbates such situations, manifesting in reduced school connections and increased school disengagement.

Navigating Family, Safety, and Transportation Challenges

Various factors, such as family difficulties, safety concerns, and transportation limitations, hinder students from attending school regularly. Economic hardships and housing instability disrupt routines for low-income students, complicating their educational journey.

Policy changes regarding school entry procedures, driven by safety fears like active shooter incidents, have unintentionally strained relationships between families and schools. The logistical challenges around transportation, exemplified by Lynetric Brightful’s situation in Baltimore, underscore the complex web of issues parents and students face in ensuring consistent school attendance.

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