Schools and districts are reporting a dramatic increase in both student and teacher chronic absenteeism, which is the term for missing 10% of school days for any reason, including both excused and unexcused absences, and suspension.
Absenteeism is partial evidence that education was and continues to be immersed in the pervasive stressors of the pandemic. Like many essential workers during COVID-19, schools needed teachers to continue student learning with minimal disruption, while completely changing instruction to online delivery. Students were expected to attend school online with very little to no preparation or skills to do so. Now, we’re just beginning to see the aftermath of the pandemic’s perfect storm: absenteeism, which compounds mental health concerns, learning recovery challenges, and increased incidents of behavior crises.
According to a survey by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), student absenteeism has increased in public schools nationwide between 2020-21 and 2021-2022.
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) also indicates breakout data for schools serving students in communities with high levels of poverty, and schools serving high populations of students of color:
It’s not just students who are missing out. Absenteeism is a concern with teachers, too. See below, from EdWeek:
It’s difficult to pin down just one reason why so many students aren’t regularly attending school. One obvious culprit was the high levels of COVID-19 transmission during the pandemic, keeping students and teachers away from in-person learning, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are many challenges that combine to create this attendance crisis.
Schools often have different systems to track attendance, right down to what districts qualify as “absent.” Sometimes, students or families have work conflicts, unreliable transportation, or housing issues. Families can be vague with the reasons why their children are gone from school. And of course, deficit thinking related to mental health challenges can be powerful factors.
Dr. Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, illustrates this ambiguity with one example:
“Let’s imagine a child, they’re quarantined for 10 days,” she said. “They were in chemistry, and now they don’t come back because they feel so far behind. Was that due to quarantine, or not?”
According to the CDC, Students living with asthma or other chronic health conditions also are likely to have high levels of absenteeism.
Dr. Chang observes that chronic absenteeism is magnifying existing inequities, with cultural factors playing a big role influencing absenteeism, such as a lack or representation, or a school climate that feels unwelcoming to students who are diverse. According to one report, “absenteeism rates for high-income students are beginning to moderate, but rates for low-income students have continued to worsen since the spring.” Nick Hawkins, a cultural specialist with North Dakota public schools, shares,
A lot of kids that are absent in school, they may be behind in the class, really feel like they don’t have a place in the class, or the teacher doesn’t understand them or respect them as the person they are. And that creates issues where they don’t want to be in those classes. It all begins with respect and feeling welcomed and feeling understood.
The stark increases in absenteeism can be attributed in part to compounding mental health concerns, learning recovery challenges, and increased incidents of behavior crises. As we move forward to understand how to mitigate this crisis, we must focus on what students and teachers are missing; the learning content and experience, yes, but so much more than that.
Behind the statistics above, there are people with stories, and challenges about coming to school. We know absenteeism is a symptom of something much bigger and multi-faceted, and we have a chance to address the roots of the problem.
We have a unique opportunity before us—to transform school into a learning community where everyone is welcomed and honored as they are. Educators understand the necessity of addressing overall well being through strong relationships, authentic learning opportunities, and social-emotional learning. We must see the bigger picture, beyond missed learning opportunities to address the unmet needs of our school community. By informing ourselves, we can make honest and effective decisions to change this trend.
Belsha, K. (2022, October 13). Absenteeism has soared. Schools need to dive deeper to understand why. Chalkbeat.
Chang, H., Balfanz, R., & Byrnes, V. (2022, September 27). Pandemic Causes Alarming Increase in Chronic Absence and Reveals Need for Better Data. Attendance Works.
Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2021, December 14). COVID-19 and the widening learning gap. McKinsey.
Fortin, J. (2022, July 18). More Pandemic Fallout: The Chronically Absent Student. The New York Times.
Lonsdorf, K. (2022, April 7). People are developing trauma-like symptoms as the pandemic wears on. NPR.
School Pulse Panel, ed.gov. (n.d.). 2022 School Pulse Panel. Institute of Education Sciences.
Sparks, S. D. (2022, July 7). Teacher and Student Absenteeism Is Getting Worse. Education Week.
St. George, D. (2022, September 29). Student absenteeism skyrockets in pandemic as test scores drop. The Washington Post.
Will, M., Lieberman, M., & Alejandra, A. (2020, August 21). Deemed ‘Essential Workers,’ Some Teachers Told to Skip Quarantine After COVID-19 Exposure. Education Week.