Three years into the pandemic, nearly all schools have reopened their campuses, but teachers and students alike aren’t showing up.
New federal data show chronic absenteeism—defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days—has continued to rise among both students and teachers in public schools. More than 70 percent of schools surveyed have had more absenteeism for students and teachers since the pandemic started in 2019-20. In 2021-22 alone, 49 percent of schools had higher chronic teacher absenteeism and 39 percent had higher student chronic absenteeism compared to the prior school year.
The National Center for Education Statistics surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,400 public elementary, middle, and high schools, nearly 870 of which fully reported in May as part of the School Pulse Panel, an ongoing study of school instruction and operations since the pandemic began.
More than 1 in 5 schools, across grade spans and locations, reported that teacher absenteeism increased “a lot” in the past school year compared to prior years. Schools serving high concentrations of students of color were particularly likely to see teachers miss more than 10 percent of school days in 2021-22.
In many already short-staffed schools, teacher absenteeism also sparked chaos. More than 3 in 4 public schools now “frequently” pull other teachers from their free periods or rely on administrators and nonteaching staff to cover classes when teachers miss school.
Although NCES found nearly all public schools returned to in-person instruction full-time in the 2021-22 school year, the two largest and most-recent waves of the pandemic—caused by the highly infectious delta and omicron strains of the coronavirus—hit at the start of the fall and spring semesters.
“The timing of those absences [due to illness or quarantine] was extremely challenging for schools and students and families,” said Hedy Chang, the founder and executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that studies school attendance issues.
“Starting class is when you form the behavioral norms and expectations of a class, when kids build relationships and connections to the other students and their teachers. It’s crucial to academics,” said Chang. “What was hard was when you had sporadic returning to class, with the kind of quarantine that was happening, … you had incredibly high levels of churn with some kids getting content, some not getting it—and then you add to that teacher absenteeism.”
Studies have found teachers affect middle and high school students’ long-term attendance, and both teacher and student absenteeism can pull down schools’ climate and connection to students as a whole.
“So the absences are both really hard for ensuring thoughtful learning experiences that build on each other, and extremely difficult for relationship-building between teachers and students,” Chang said.
Though pandemic outbreaks contributed to the disruption, chronic absenteeism was related to more than just illness. Student and teacher disengagement and burnout, as well as family financial difficulties have all been linked to attendance issues.
Federal pandemic recovery money for schools can be used to improve attendance, but experts say school and district leaders need to start outreach now to reconnect students and staff before the fall. For example, Connecticut launched a Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, or LEAP, in spring 2021, which provided grants to 15 school districts to train teachers and community organizations to conduct home visits with families of absent students during the summer and line up adult mentors for children during the semester.
Home visits may include helping families with transportation problems or mediating bullying problems or the need for additional learning support for students who have fallen behind.
“The last thing we want is a truancy approach where we’re going to disengage families and make them afraid and make them feel bad about whatever it is that they’re going through,” said Kari Sullivan Custer, education consultant for attendance and engagement and the state’s coordinator for LEAP. “We want them to feel connected and supported.”
While the program initially focused on teachers as home visitors, Sullivan Custer said it became more difficult for educators to juggle home visits with instruction and other duties last year. This fall, the state is expanding training and grants for the program, to include more community groups and other staff in schools, both to help support teachers and provide a broader pool of adults students can connect with at school.
Districts are targeting “students in transition,” including 9th graders who missed school frequently in 8th grade and incoming students at all grades who miss two or more days in the first month of school.
“Being absent two or three days in September or October, that’s an indicator that there could be trouble going forward for that student,” Sullivan Custer said. “We want to get them back on track before they get too far down the road.”
Among other Pulse survey findings:
- More than 80 percent of schools report “stunted behavioral and socioemotional development in their students because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” with middle school leaders most likely to “strongly agree” with such concerns.
- In May, 47 percent of schools reported students in quarantine because of COVID-19 and 35 percent of schools reported staff in COVID-related quarantine. This was higher than in March and April, but lower than at the height of the first omicron wave in January.
- Thirty-six percent of schools reported they now offer synchronous virtual instruction for students who must stay home sick, while 57 percent provide asynchronous instruction.