School & District Management What the Research Says

More Than a Million Students ‘Never Showed Up’ Last School Year. Here’s What We Know About Them

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 23, 2022 4 min read
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An estimated 1.1 million K-12 students registered for the 2020-21 school year but never showed up for class, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday.

Based on a nationally representative Gallup survey, nearly half of public school teachers said they had at least one student who enrolled but remained “unaccounted for,” the GAO report found. Three out of 4 of those teachers said they had more students unaccounted for by the end of the 2020-21 school year than in previous years.

Rules vary widely from state to state on how schools identify students who leave school—particularly the rising number who have been home-schooled since the pandemic—but the GAO findings align with other data suggesting school enrollment itself dropped by more than a million students nationwide last year.

“It’s pretty sobering,” said Hedy Chang, the founder and executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that works to combat chronic absenteeism. Missing students could lead to higher dropout rates and lower district budgets in years to come.

While teachers across all kinds and grades of schools reported missing students, some of the most-vulnerable students and under-resourced schools seemed hardest hit.

Disadvantaged students were more likely to get lost in the shuffle

The GAO found that 50 percent to 60 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools reported having students unaccounted for, compared to less than a third of teachers in schools where 20 percent or fewer students were from low-income families. Teachers in schools serving a majority of students of color were also 11 percentage points more likely to have students who never showed up, 56 percent versus 45 percent of teachers in majority-white schools.

Advocates have voiced concern for months that homeless and highly mobile students became difficult to find and support as schools went in and out of quarantine and families faced greater financial instability. For example, while child homelessness reached a high of 1.5 million just before the pandemic, by fall 2020, more than 400,000 of them couldn’t be found.

Home support for learning proved a challenge

Even though teachers in the earliest grades were the least likely to have students unaccounted for, more than 80 percent of K-2 teachers reported more students missing last year than in prior years. That share is 10 percentage points or more higher than for teachers of older students.

While in-person and virtual teachers were equally likely (71 percent for each group) to say they had more students unaccounted for in 2020-21, teachers reported a lack of home support for learning was the most common barrier to student attendance. Nearly 3 in 4 teachers said their students had little or no help from adults when attending remote classes, and—even during a period of major district investment in education technology—17 percent of teachers said their students have no reliable internet service or access to laptops and other devices to use it.

Caregiving and work competed for older students’ time

The pandemic took the greatest toll on high school students, teachers said. Sixty-five percent of high school teachers reported missing students, more than double the share of K-2 teachers. Fifty-seven percent of high school teachers said their students had more work responsibilities that interfered with school, even as schools themselves had less capacity to provide work-study opportunities for students.

The GAO also found that secondary and even some older elementary students were more likely to need to take care of family members—be they younger siblings or sick grandparents—in ways that made it harder to come to school. Nearly half of teachers in grades 3-12 said that family care duties were a “somewhat” or “significant” factor in students not coming to school.

“Unfortunately, I think things may even be more challenging this year, which is a horrible thing to have to say,” Chang said. While nearly all schools returned to in-person instruction in the 2021-22 school year, she noted that waves of increasingly infectious pandemic variants led to ongoing school closures and student quarantines, which hurt teachers’ ability to get students back into academic routines.

“It really hurt students’ sense of whether schools were safe and healthy places to return,” she said.

Moreover, “to get kids to re-enroll and return to school, you have to do a lot of individual outreach to find those kids, to talk to those kids, to bring them back,” she said. “But schools right now just don’t have the bandwidth to do that deeper outreach.”

The Gallup survey, conducted in June and July 2021, included more than 2,860 public school K-12 teachers in general education and core subjects like English/language arts, math, science, social studies, and world languages. Pollsters asked teachers to distinguish between the students who “disengaged,” or missed significant portions of school during the year, and those who registered but never attended and had no record of transferring or being home-schooled instead. The GAO plans a separate report in coming months focused on disengaged students.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2022 edition of Education Week as More Than a Million Students ‘Never Showed Up’ Last School Year. Here’s What We Know About Them

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