Where are all the kids? 4 Things to Know About the Current Absenteeism Crisis

Kids miss school every day and always have—often for good reasons. But school leaders around the country say they’re struggling with a wave of chronic absenteeism that’s worsened over the course of the pandemic.

There are lots of factors, ranging from COVID-specific illness and family disruption to students who have just fallen out of the habit of regular attendance. And while current statistics are scarce, educators say the empty seats don’t make it any easier to get schools back to normal.

Here are a few takeaways from recent Education Week reporting that offer perspective on the problem and the challenges schools face.

What is ‘chronic absenteeism,’ anyway?

As the term suggests, it’s more than just missing school for a day or two.

Definitions vary, but the nonprofit advocacy group Attendance Works describes “chronic absenteeism” as missing 10 percent or more of school days, whether it be for excused absences like illness (or quarantine) or for other reasons that could even include suspensions. (By contrast, “satisfactory attendance” is considered to be missing fewer than 5 percent of school days.)

But some kids miss far more days than that simple yardstick might suggest. Some advocates, such as Hedy Chang, of Attendance Works, recommend more-nuanced calibrations that could capture things like “extreme absenteeism”—or having missed half the attendance days or more at any given point.

What did things look like before the pandemic turned schools upside down?

Analysis of US Department of Education data back in 2018 found that 1 in 7 kids were “chronically absent” in the 2015-16 school year. And more than half of those students were in schools where the rates were more than 20 percent.

So where do things stand now, more than two years into the COVID-19 crisis?

It’s still a moving target as the school year progresses and data remains spotty. But one intriguing indicator comes from a McKinsey & Co. survey in November 2021, in which 22 percent of respondents said their child had missed at least four days of school at that point in the year. And the trend line didn’t look good: If things were to stay on that track for the rest of the year, it would translate into at least 15 days of missed school—”chronic absenteeism” territory.

Data aside, how can schools keep kids coming back?

Build habit, attachment, and family connections, say those working in the school-attendance field.

In some communities, educators work the neighborhoods to know what stresses families are facing that impede their ability to assure kids show up every day. They meet parents where they are, at it in person or online.

Within schools, it pays to build trusting relationships between students and adults; research shows kids are more likely to attend if they feel connected and know their needs will be met.

And look for resources to help, including through the $122 billion in American Recovery Plan fundingwhich includes federal money for a wide range of needs as schools seek to snap back from the pandemic.

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