Report: Schools Won鈥檛 Recover from COVID Absenteeism Crisis Until at Least 2030

Dire news from two separate studies require a 'hard pivot,' researchers say 鈥 and some lawmakers are starting to listen.

Between the 2017-18 and 2021-22 school years, the percentage of school districts with extreme chronic absenteeism levels increased from about 11% to 39%. (Attendance Works and Johns Hopkins University)

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The rate of students chronically missing school got so bad during the pandemic that it will likely be 2030 before classrooms return to pre-COVID norms, a new report says.

But even that prediction rests on optimistic assumptions about continued improvement in the coming years. For some states, it could take longer. In Louisiana, Oregon and South Carolina, for example, the percentage of students chronically absent for at least 10% of the school year went up in 2022-23, from the American Enterprise Institute.聽

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

The report, based on available data from 39 states, calls chronic absenteeism 鈥渟chools鈥 greatest post-pandemic challenge.鈥 

鈥淲e need to make a hard pivot moving forward,鈥 said Nat Malkus, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank. Minor decreases in chronic absenteeism rates are not enough to stave off 鈥渁 disaster for the long term鈥 he said, especially in low-performing and high-poverty districts that had serious absenteeism problems before the pandemic.

Malkus, a former middle school teacher, called for districts to make attendance a high priority, especially among elementary educators. Parents, he said, are more likely to respond to messages from children鈥檚 teachers than from 鈥渁 stranger from the school district.鈥 

The report, one of two separate studies of chronic absenteeism released Wednesday, further underscores the enormity of a national crisis that is hindering students鈥 ability to recover academically from the pandemic. The second analysis shows a substantial increase in the share of districts where at least 30% of students missed 18 or more days of school. 

The review of federal data breaks down the rates into five levels of chronic absenteeism, with extreme being the highest. 

鈥淲e came up with these categories before the pandemic,鈥 said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works. At that point, nearly 11% of districts nationally had extreme levels. 鈥淭hen the pandemic hit, and it was like 鈥極h my God.鈥 鈥

By 2021-22, the rate had more than tripled to almost 39%, , the final installment in a three-part from Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. The data 鈥渃ompels action from state education agencies and policymakers,鈥 researchers wrote.聽

鈥業t鈥檚 alarming鈥

Some state lawmakers share that sense of urgency. So far, eight bills in seven states aim to reestablish good attendance habits among the nation鈥檚 students. 

Earlier this month, a Maryland called interim state chief Carey Wright to testify about whether news reports of shockingly high rates 鈥 with over half of students repeatedly missing school 鈥 were true.  

鈥淚t鈥檚 alarming,鈥 she told the members, after sharing district and state-level data. 鈥淲e have a lot of children who are chronically absent at very young grades, and that’s a real concern, particularly when you’re thinking that they’re starting their educational career.鈥

In Maryland, 274 schools out of 1,388 had an extreme chronic absenteeism rate in 2017-18. By 2021-22, that number had reached 700.

Lori Phelps, principal of Woodbridge Elementary in Catonsville, joined Wright to explain how her staff reduced its rate from 28% in 2021-22 to just over 9% in 2022-23.

Identifying patterns that increase absences is part of the answer, she added. For example, students were more likely to miss school on early-release days, so the staff worked with parent leaders to offer an afternoon program on those days. The PTA charged $10, but waived the fee for students with the most absences.

鈥淲e all want to prioritize those very important state scores,鈥 Phelps said, 鈥渂ut we made a decision two years ago to prioritize attendance.鈥

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

But even parents determined to get their children to school face significant obstacles if they don鈥檛 have transportation. In Colorado, every district has to save money or because of driver shortages, said Michelle Exstrom, education director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. She serves on a expected to propose transportation solutions by the end of the year.  

鈥淚n rural areas all over the country, where kids don’t have a ride to school, it’s like, duh, they’re not going to be at school,鈥 she said. A lot of parents can鈥檛 leave work at 2:30 to pick up their children, she said, and even high school students with cars often can鈥檛 drive to school because there鈥檚 not enough parking, she said.

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, two lawmakers think some might reduce chronic absenteeism in kindergarten and ninth grade, two grade levels with rates around 30%. 

The bill, from Democrat Rep. Dani Isaacsohn and Republican Rep. Bill Seitz, would offer $500 annually to families in low-income districts to boost attendance rates in those grades and ideally save money on dropout recovery services in the long run. If passes, it would start as a pilot this fall .

Seitz told 成人抖阴 he expects 鈥渟ignificant supportive testimony,鈥 based on the success of a similar program led by a .

Another proposal in , which had a 30% chronic absenteeism rate last year, would provide for home visits and tutoring to keep frequently absent high school students on track for graduation. And a would update the definition of 鈥渆ducational neglect鈥 to include a parent鈥檚 failure to comply with attendance requirements.

鈥楽tudied in real time鈥

But both Malkus and Chang expressed skepticism of state solutions that fail to factor in the highly localized nature of the problem. , for example, one reason chronic absenteeism levels haven鈥檛 dropped is because 鈥渢here are whole communities still feeling the effects of wildfires,鈥 said Marc Siegel, spokesman for the state education department. In general, Malkus said it鈥檚 unlikely state legislation would be 鈥渁 rapid-enough response.鈥 And Chang worried that legislators could be 鈥渢oo prescriptive.鈥

鈥淚 think folks have to have local flexibility to unpack the issues,鈥 she said. 

But she does think states are helping in at least one critical area: producing more accurate and timely data. 

In the past, it was often June before states released chronic absenteeism data from the year before 鈥 a fact that delayed efforts to help students. In Rhode Island, the public can the percentage of students at each school on track to be chronically absent by the end of the year. Malkus would like to see more leaders take that approach.

 鈥淚f we want to address it with eyes wide open,鈥 he wrote, 鈥渃hronic absenteeism needs to be studied in real time.鈥

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