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Why are so many students still missing so much school?
Part One: Chronic absenteeism has created a nation of Ferris Buellers
One of the saddest legacies of the pandemic has been kids missing school. I’m not talking about what happened during the first COVID wave, beginning in March 2020, when schools nationwide were closed entirely and remained closed, in some cases, through the next school year.
I’m talking about right now.
Chronic absenteeism remains at an all-time high. A student is considered chronically absent when they miss 10 percent of school days in a given year. Based on a typical 180-day calendar, we’re talking 18 days.
That’s a lot of absences. Perhaps you are old enough to remember America’s favorite Dean of Students, Edward R. Rooney, speaking to Ferris Bueller’s mother in the classic 1986 film, where he informs her that Ferris has been absent nine times in a semester. That equates to 18 per year. Chronic absenteeism requires missing school at a Ferris-level frequency.
According to a recent in-depth piece from the AP’s Bianca Vazquez Toness, 25 percent of American students were chronically absent in 2021-22, up from 15 percent prior to the pandemic, which is an additional 6.5 million kids. Let that sink in.
Absenteeism increased in all 50 states – urban, rural, large, small… everywhere. (Data for 2022-23 are just beginning to be reported by states, but the early indication is that numbers “remained persistently high.”)
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My first question is: Why?
Schools have fallen into that sad category with downtown office buildings, public transportation, and movie theaters – places that never recovered their foot traffic. While it’s widely accepted that these other sectors face existential threats that will force them to reinvent themselves or perish, no such urgency exists with attendance in school.
And that’s my second question: When are we going to start taking this crisis seriously?
In a three-part series, please join me in hurtling down the rabbit hole to see if we can find any answers. We’ll start today by reviewing the various explanations that have been posited for the rise in chronic absenteeism and evaluating the plausibility of each one.
Next, in Part Two, we will look at how absenteeism affects kids of all backgrounds. If you are like me, you may come to this issue assuming that it’s mostly about low-income students – particularly in dense urban areas that were hard-hit by COVID – and the barriers to getting them back in class. You would be very wrong. As we will see, absenteeism has surged everywhere, including in some of the nation’s most affluent enclaves.
Finally, in Part Three, we will consider the best strategies for addressing the crisis, drawing on lessons from efforts to lure employees back to in-person work and best practices that have been used in the past to support students with issues of school avoidance.
Part One: What are the possible reasons for record rates of chronic absenteeism?
This list is non-exhaustive. For each one, I’ll summarize the argument that’s been made and briefly assess its validity.
There’s less accountability for missing school. To reduce anxiety and to acknowledge barriers arising from the pandemic, some schools changed grading policies so students don’t automatically receive lower grades or fail to receive credit when missing a certain number of classes. Others determined that if kids submitted only a fraction of the assignments given, they would be graded only on those rather than the ones missed. There are schools that allow kids to get an excused absence for a “mental health day” without needing to see a health professional.
How strong is this explanation? These changes to student accountability have occurred at the school or district level. As the AP story (linked above) points out, chronic absenteeism rose in every state. It’s hard to believe that such ground-level policy changes were so widespread or influential that they were a primary driver in a nationwide surge in absences. Even so, we’re going to see later in this series that some schools believe lack of accountability for students is a fairly significant contributor to absenteeism and they are beginning to adjust their strategies accordingly.
Transportation is broken. Bus driver shortages are everywhere, leading to route changes and unreliable service. Pickups are missed. Kids never make it to school. Families are quicker to keep kids home now that they lack confidence that buses will deliver.
How strong is this explanation? There’s no question that busing in some districts is a mess. But most American students get to school by car, walking, or riding their bikes – not on buses. And once again, chronic absenteeism went up everywhere, not just cities where there aren’t enough bus drivers.
Social fabric frayed. Some students are motivated to attend school because they thrive on connecting with peers and educators. COVID interrupted those relationships profoundly, leaving kids isolated and anxious. Teacher turnover has been rampant, causing vacancies and reducing trust. A phone call from a teacher saying “I’d love to see you in class more often” might carry less weight. Older students can connect with their friends online without being at school.
How strong is this explanation? These themes come up frequently when families talk about why their kids are not making it to school – including in this recent piece from LAist. There is abundant evidence that the pandemic disrupted social patterns for young people in lasting ways. They find it harder to make friends and less appealing to spend time together in-person. Feels reasonable to conclude that this is a factor. And not one that schools can address easily.
In-person school feels outdated. Kids don't see why they can't work from home. Many professionals do. E-learning was validated to them as a legitimate modality. Resourceful students can engage with any topic they want on YouTube. When a day is missed, 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. Parents saw the low quality of instruction during remote learning and are not as worried about their kids missing some of it. Sitting in a desk for six hours a day is for suckers.
How strong is this explanation? Parents of high schoolers bring this up all the time. The inflexibility of school feels more and more out of step with the increasingly fluid nature of life elsewhere. One person told me his daughter comes out ahead when staying home because she can easily complete that day’s work and still have time left for other projects. But absenteeism is up for all grade levels, not just older students. Today’s first graders aren’t staying home because they feel they can knock out their coloring assignments online. However, there may be some overlap between this explanation and the social fabric one above. As we will discuss later in this series, parents are key to the absenteeism issue, and they have become readier to let their kids stay home.
Staying home is fun. Kids have devices in their hands that connect to streaming services and social media. The days of staring at network TV game shows and soap operas are long gone. Missing school = hours of unregulated, appealing entertainment.
How strong is this explanation? Parents get uncomfortable when discussing this one because they sense blame coming their way. But we need to talk about it. An Australian researcher, commenting on new data showing a link between screen time and school avoidance, called it “the elephant in the room.” Being online means not having to deal with feelings or cope with social discomfort. School closures dramatically increased how much time kids spent on screens. It’s been very difficult to pare it back. Importantly, this explanation potentially addresses why we see so much absenteeism among early elementary students – because their increases in screen time have been alarming. Screen time went up everywhere, so did absenteeism. Hard to discount that.
Kids can't go to school "a little bit sick" anymore. Working parents historically pushed the envelope when deciding whether that runny nose was a good enough reason to keep a child home. With heightened awareness of infection transmission, those same parents are getting shamed by school nurses (“Uh, can you come pick up your son, he’s coughing on everybody here in my office.”) A common cold now begets three days out of school.
How strong is this explanation? It deserves more consideration than it typically gets. Above, I mentioned the LAist piece that points to non-COVID illness as one of the three biggest causes of absenteeism in Los Angeles. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says “I think we need to overcome the pandemic mentality that any little sniffle should be addressed by keeping the child at home.” This is the exact opposite of what schools were telling families for a couple years. Good luck unwinding that messaging.
Kids are still getting COVID. The virus hasn’t gone away. When a child tests positive, they need to quarantine and that’s going to be a whole bunch of school absences, guaranteed. A single COVID case could push a student close to chronic absenteeism territory.
How strong is this explanation? The numbers aren’t there. Let’s consider Montgomery County Public Schools, a large and diverse district outside Washington, DC. In 2022-23, only 7,659 students had COVID the entire year out of 180,702 enrollees. That same year, MCPS had 43,000 chronically absent students, which is 13,000 more than pre-COVID times. Further, students who test positive are required to remain out of school for five days – total days, not school days – and can return on the sixth if there are no symptoms. A single COVID case wouldn’t get the typical student anywhere near 18 absences. COVID may be a non-trivial contributor to absenteeism, but it's likely not the lion’s share of the story.
More parents can work remotely. Which means they can stay home with sick children instead of sending them to school.
How strong is this explanation? Might be a little bit of truth here. More professionals are working from home – especially women. It’s also true that moms take on the lion’s share of childcare responsibilities. But while remote employment is more common than it was pre-pandemic, the increase – from 24 percent of workers in 2018 to 34 percent now – isn’t nearly sufficient to account for the surge in school absences. Any effect here is probably marginal and tilted toward affluent families.
Whew. That’s a lot, I know. The bottom line is, explanations are flying all over the place.
Next week, in Part Two, we’ll move beyond the chatter to look closely at what’s happening on the ground - not just in urban areas but the suburbs. Surprises will abound.
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