Nov 21, 2023 - Economy

15 million students chronically miss school in post-COVID spike

Share of schools where more than 30% of students were chronically absent, by poverty concentration level
Notes: "Chronically absent" is defined as a student who has missed more than 10% of school days within an academic year. Poverty concentration level is determined by the share of students who are eligible for reduced-price or free meals. Data: Attendance Works; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Extreme levels of student absence have spiked in schools across the country since the pandemic began, according to data released Friday by Attendance Works, a nonprofit research initiative.

Why it matters: Students haven't recovered from pandemic learning losses, and widespread absences affect entire schools, not just the missing students.

  • Nearly 30% of students (14.7 million) were chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year, meaning they missed 10% or more of the year.

What's happening: The figures are more stark for students in schools with higher poverty rates.

  • Nearly 70% of high-poverty schools experienced chronic absenteeism in 2021-22, up from 25% before the pandemic.
  • 66% of students attended a school with extreme or high levels of chronic absence in 2021-22.
  • Preliminary 2022-23 data suggests that absences slightly improved the following school year, the New York Times reported.

Threat level: Chronic absenteeism widens inequities, said Hedy Chang, the executive director and president of Attendance Works.

  • Students who miss school are less likely to read by the end of third grade and more likely to have academic and behavioral challenges in middle school.
  • They're also more likely to drop out of high school.

Zoom in: One of the most stark increases in absenteeism occurred in elementary schools.

  • 7% of schools had 30% or more students who were chronically absent in 2017-18, which increased to 38% of schools in 2021-22.
  • "If you don't address it then, the problems typically get more challenging as the kid gets older and they fall further behind or the routine doesn't become part of what they know how to do," Chang said.

State of play: Absenteeism figures are separate from students who stopped attending school during COVID-19 and never returned.

  • Hundreds of thousands of students disappeared from schools and haven't re-enrolled, per the AP.

Between the lines: Absenteeism has widely varying root causes, according to Attendance Works. They include:

  • Chronic and accute illness, trauma, family responsibilities, housing and food insecurity.
  • Academic or behavioral struggling, anxiety, unwelcoming school climate, undiagnosed disability.
  • Lack of challenging, culturally responsive instruction, no meaningful relationships to adults, need to work.
  • Losing track of absences, assumptions that absences only matter for older students.

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