Schools Face Prolonged Recovery from COVID Absenteeism Crisis According to Report

A new report indicates that the rate of students who are consistently absent from school has become so severe during the pandemic that it may not return to pre-COVID levels until 2030. However, this projection is based on optimistic assumptions about future improvements, and some states may take even longer to recover. According to an analysis from the American Enterprise Institute, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina saw an increase in the percentage of students who were chronically absent for at least 10% of the school year in 2022-23.

The map displays chronic absenteeism levels for states that have already published the data from the 2022-23 school year. (American Enterprise Institute)

Chronic absenteeism is identified as the “greatest post-pandemic challenge” for schools, according to the report based on data from 39 states. Nat Malkus, a senior fellow at a conservative think tank, asserts that minor reductions in chronic absenteeism rates will not be sufficient to prevent long-term disaster, especially in low-performing and high-poverty districts that already struggled with absenteeism prior to the pandemic. Malkus emphasizes the need for districts to prioritize attendance and involve parents, suggesting that parents are more likely to respond to messages from their children’s teachers than from administrators.

Another study examining chronic absenteeism reveals a significant increase in the number of districts where at least 30% of students missed 18 or more days of school. The analysis categorizes chronic absenteeism rates into five levels, with extreme being the highest.

According to Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, nearly 11% of districts in the country had extreme levels of chronic absenteeism before the pandemic. However, by 2021-22, this rate had more than tripled to almost 39%. The data underscores the need for immediate action from policymakers and state education agencies, according to the researchers.

‘It’s alarming’

Several state lawmakers have recognized the urgency of addressing chronic absenteeism. In Maryland, for example, the Senate judicial committee questioned the interim state chief, Carey Wright, about the high rates of absenteeism in Baltimore schools. Wright expressed concern about chronically absent young children negatively impacting their educational progress. In Maryland, the number of schools with extreme chronic absenteeism rates increased from 274 to 700 between 2017-18 and 2021-22.

Principal Lori Phelps of Woodbridge Elementary in Catonsville shared how her staff successfully reduced the chronic absenteeism rate from 28% to just over 9% through targeted interventions. The school identified patterns that contributed to absences and implemented strategies to address them, such as offering an afternoon program on early-release days and waiving fees for students with high rates of absenteeism.

Woodbridge Elementary in Catonsville, Maryland, was able to reduce chronic absenteeism levels by nearly 20 percentage points last school year. (Woodbridge Elementary School)

No buses

One significant obstacle even for parents who are committed to ensuring their children attend school regularly is transportation. Michelle Exstrom, the education director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, reports that all school districts in Colorado have reduced bus routes due to budget constraints or driver shortages. This lack of transportation options disproportionately affects rural areas, where children may be unable to attend school if they don’t have a ride.

Denver Public Schools is among the Colorado districts that have cut bus routes or reduced the number of stops, which contributes to attendance problems. (Katie Wood/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

In Ohio, lawmakers are proposing a measure to combat chronic absenteeism in kindergarten and ninth-grade by offering additional financial support to families in low-income districts. The pilot program aims to reduce absenteeism rates in those grades and potentially save money in the long run on dropout recovery services.

Similar initiatives are being considered in Washington, where grants for home visits and tutoring are being considered to support high school students who frequently miss school, and in Virginia, where legislation would broaden the definition of “educational neglect” to encompass a parent’s failure to comply with attendance requirements.

‘Studied in real time’

While state-level solutions have been proposed, the experts interviewed for the report express skepticism about their efficacy in addressing the highly localized nature of the chronic absenteeism problem. There are unique circumstances in different communities, such as the impact of wildfires in Oregon, which cannot be adequately addressed by blanket state legislation. The experts advocate for local flexibility in tackling the issue of chronic absenteeism. However, they agree that states can play a crucial role in producing more accurate and timely data, allowing for real-time analysis and targeted interventions.

Overall, the report emphasizes the urgent need to address chronic absenteeism and highlights the critical role of schools, educators, parents, and policymakers in implementing effective strategies to improve attendance rates and support students’ academic progress.

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