Millions Miss School as Attendance Rates Drop

Rear view of high school students walking into school building together. | Image by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

A recent investigation revealed an alarming trend of student absenteeism across the United States, with an estimated 6.5 million children becoming chronically absent in the post-pandemic reopening of schools.

Data collected by Thomas Dee, a professor of education at Stanford University, as part of the Big Local News project with the Associated Press in 40 different states and Washington, D.C., suggest that over 25% of U.S. students (K-12) were chronically absent during the 2021-22 academic year.

Several states actually saw at least a doubling of these cases between the 2019-19 and 2021-22 school years, including Texas, Indiana, Iowa, Arizona, California, and New Mexico.

Alaska recorded the highest levels of absenteeism, growing from approximately 29% to 49% over this period.

“Chronically absent” is defined as missing at least 10% of the school term, or over 18 days, and is directly associated with a greater risk of not developing basic reading skills and of failing to graduate.

“The long-term consequences of disengaging from school are devastating. And the pandemic has absolutely made things worse and for more students,” explained Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works, according to the AP.

Research suggests that the effects of the pandemic’s lockdowns on student outcomes have been multifold.

As recently reported in The Dallas Express, classroom misbehavior has increased significantly since classes resumed, according to a survey by EdWeek Research Center among educators, with 70% of respondents reporting that student misbehavior was a greater problem than in the fall of 2019.

Moreover, some experts suggest that the relationships between educational institutions and families have eroded since the pandemic lockdowns.

“For almost two years, we told families that school can look different and that schoolwork could be accomplished in times outside of the traditional 8-to-3 day. Families got used to that,” explained Elmer Roldan, a community organizer with Communities in Schools of Los Angeles, according to the AP.

For Rousmery Negrón from Springfield, Massachusetts, the school her 11-year-old son had changed drastically when it resumed following its pandemic closure.

Noting that the school as a whole seemed to have grown less tolerant, more impatient, and overly severe, Negrón told the AP that the final straw came when she learned that a teacher had allegedly mocked her son’s learning disabilities.

She took her son out of school and has been searching for an alternative ever since.

“He needs to learn,” Negrón said. “He’s very intelligent. But I’m not going to waste my time, my money on uniforms, for him to go to a school where he’s just going to fail.”

Another study published by Professor Dee at the start of this year focused more specifically on the dropping enrollment numbers seen in public school districts in the first two academic years of the pandemic.

It found that these declines amounted to approximately 1.2 million children nationwide.

While bumps of 4% and 30%, respectively, were logged in private school enrollment and homeschooling, Dee noted that these increases did not account for over a third of students no longer enrolled in public school districts.

One possible contributor to the exodus could be parents who have found a worthy alternative to the public school system in charter schools. Charter schools have seen better academic outcomes than many public schools, with 5 of the top 10 campuses in Texas being charters, as The Dallas Express has covered.

As reported in The Dallas Express, Dallas ISD, the second-biggest public school system in Texas, has been dealing with declining enrollment for years.

This has been in no small part due to its poor student achievement outcomes. STAAR exams for the 2021-2022 school year showed that 41% of its students scored at grade level, significantly below the 48% statewide average. Additionally, almost 20% of the district’s graduating Class of 2022 did not earn a diploma within four years.

While children can be absent from school for many reasons — such as economic constraints, health issues, bullying, and transportation challenges — the consequences of missing too much are difficult to ignore.

Research has shown that those who don’t complete high school are more likely to end up poor, have health problems, struggle with substance abuse, and turn to criminal activity.

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