The proportion of students attending schools that had high or extreme rates of chronic absenteeism more than doubled from 26 percent during the 2017-18 school year to 66 percent during the 2021-22 school year, according to a new report.
And early state data from the 2022-23 school year suggest only modest improvement since then.
The analysis of federal data—conducted by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and Attendance Works—provides a new perspective on how unprecedented pandemic-era surges in absences have affected all students, even those with strong attendance.
Even students who are consistently present suffer when large numbers of their peers fail to show up, said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, an organization that promotes tracking and responding to data about student attendance.
The problem strains school resources as educators seek to address the hurdles that keep classmates out of school, she said. And it presents a major challenge for teachers, who are already stretched to address a wide variety of academic challenges caused by the pandemic’s disruption.
“These high levels of chronic absence are suggesting a level of disengagement that we have to address,” Chang said. “They can’t be left for just schools alone to address. We need community partnerships and infrastructure. This needs all hands on deck.”
State data shows little improvement
A student is deemed chronically absent when they miss at least 10 percent of school days. Nationwide, 29.7 percent of students, nearly 14.7 million, were chronically absent in the 2021-22 school year, the latest federal data show.
And preliminary data show little improvement in the most recent school year. The 11 states that have reported attendance data from the 2022-23 school year had a combined chronic absenteeism rate of 27.8 percent, down from 30 percent the previous year. Among those states, Massachusetts had the most significant drop—from 27.7 percent to 22.2 percent. Virginia had the smallest drop in absenteeism though its overall rate is lower, from 20.1 percent in 2021-22 to 19.5 percent in 2022-23, the analysis found.
As the most recent national data on the crisis continues to roll out, exploring information from 2021-22 illustrates how higher levels of absences have affected students and schools who faced fewer challenges from the issue before the pandemic, Chang said.
In the 2017-18 school year, 26 percent of students were enrolled in a school where at least a fifth of students were chronically absent. In 2021-22, that number jumped to 66 percent of students.
That’s a concern, even for students with good attendance, because research has found that children’s academic performance and executive functioning skills are weaker in classrooms with higher rates of absenteeism.
Elementary schools see spikes in absenteeism
Chronic absenteeism was seen as “more of a high school problem” before the pandemic. But federal data show the crisis is affecting more elementary and middle schools, Chang said.
That means elementary schools that formerly addressed attendance concerns with one caseworker or counselor must now create comprehensive plans to reengage students, Chang said.
Schools have addressed absenteeism through a variety of strategies, including mentoring, social-emotional learning, home visits, and helping students build stronger peer relationships.
“We have to emphasize and build relationships into the core of how schools operate,” Chang said. “I think kids can learn and they can catch up, but they have to feel connected and motivated and supported by schools for that to happen.”