Some Takeaways from the Webinar—“What Can We Do About Chronic Absenteeism?”

This past week I hosted an AEI webinar on nationally growing rates of chronic absenteeism—what are the causes, and what can we do about it? Our panelists were Nat Malkus, senior fellow at AEI; Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools; Tim Daly, CEO of EdNavigator; and Aaris Johnson, director of home visits at Concentric Educational Solutions.

Nat opened the conversation with a brief presentation on chronic absenteeism from 2017-2023, gleaned from his Return to Learn Tracker. From 2019 and 2022, the first post-pandemic year with nationally reliable data, chronic absenteeism rates nearly doubled. The national average, which sat at 15 percent in 2019, grew to a staggering 28 percent. In human terms, that means nearly three in ten students are absent from school 10 percent or more of the time. What’s going on and what can we do about it? The panelists provided some important information and takeaways.

Since 2016, Dr. Santelises, has led Baltimore City Public Schools, which faced high chronic absenteeism even before the pandemic. She noted that neighborhoods with concentrated poverty tend to suffer more from chronic absenteeism than simply urban areas at large, an important distinction when considering what has made their numbers so high in recent years. For children in areas where school seems like a dead end, where students hang by a “thread of engagement,” in Dr. Santelises’ words, the pandemic strained students’ already tenuous relationship with school. If participating in school can’t deliver on the promise of a job after graduation, why show up at all, especially in the wake of a pandemic?

Participating in school remotely convinced some students that attending school full-time is no longer worth the effort. “[High-school aged kids] just don’t believe that in-person school is necessary,” said Daly, who works to connect struggling students to pediatricians and hospitals. “They think, ‘I can do this stuff at home.’” Simultaneously, staying at home has become a lot more enjoyable for most kids: In the era of streaming, a near infinite amount of TV shows and movies are widely available online. The pandemic also changed habits around sick days; parents and students are more reluctant to send their kids to school if they’re not feeling well. While not the root cause of expanding chronic absenteeism across the country, many aspects of pandemic schooling have contributed to the attendance crisis we’re now seeing: habits formed during Covid are proving hard to break.

It’s clear the pandemic has contributed to the rise of chronic absenteeism rates across the board, not just among in low-income and poorly-performing school districts. Daly spoke about some of his findings, which indicate that chronic absenteeism has different causes in different districts and communities. For example, while limited transportation availability has been raised, on the policy level, as a major concern, that can’t explain the rise we’re seeing in districts that have no buses. In a recent series on the causes of chronic absenteeism, Daly writes, “Plenty of students from our nation’s wealthiest families are chronically absent, too. For every demographic group, numbers have gone up. Just like in the pandemic, we’re all in this together—like it or not.”

When dwelling on accountability measures and fixing school culture through policy, it can be easy to stray from the people who suffer from issues like these on a daily basis. Aaris Johnson, who leads a team of “professional student advocates” at Concentric Educational Solutions that conducts home visits and works directly with chronically absent students and their families, whose struggles cannot be easily remedied by school policies. “A lot of the time, students will tell us ‘I have to go to work because I have to make sure my family is ok,’” he said. “That is something we see on a daily basis.” While schools cracking down on attendance policy and accountability concerns post-virtual school can work in some districts, such measures would do nothing for students battling these issues, he insisted.

In Dr. Santelises’ mind, schools setting a standard of knowing and caring about these kids can be a start to the reengagement process. “[I’ve heard from] community people, from young people themselves, that [schools] have to go deep on building back relationships again,” she said. Students, she insisted, need to know that at least one adult notices when they don’t come to school.

Ideally that one adult is a parent or other relative. Failing that it must be an educator, community member or someone like Johnson who, when I accompanied him recently on visits to the homes of chronically absent kids in Baltimore took care to tell parents, “I’m not a truant officer.” If chronic absenteeism has become a problem of attendance culture, he said, then we shouldn’t point the finger at families and students alone.

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