Where have all the students gone?

A new analysis of attendance data from five school districts serving nearly 450,000 students in the South, Southwest and West found alarming absenteeism even in elementary school. (Pete Kiehart/The New York Times)
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A new analysis of attendance data from five school districts serving nearly 450,000 students in the South, Southwest and West found alarming absenteeism even in elementary school. (Pete Kiehart/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

Data suggest kids missed a lot more school during pandemic than we thought

A strong interest in summer school in Atlanta this year came from students in the lower elementary grades. A new national report suggests a possible explanation: Younger children missed an extraordinary amount of school during the pandemic.

A new analysis of attendance data from five school districts serving nearly 450,000 students in the South, Southwest and West found alarming absenteeism even in elementary school. “Absenteeism has been far higher during the pandemic than has been reported,” said Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, which produced the report “Present Danger: Solving the Deepening Student Absenteeism Crisis.” The analysis of attendance data used in the report was conducted by California-based EveryDay Labs, a company that works with 2,000 schools to improve student attendance.

It is not just that more students were chronically absent, defined as missing at least 10% of the school year in excused or unexcused absences. “There were more and more students missing half of the school year — 80 or 90 days,” said report author Phyllis Jordan at a livestreamed panel on the report Tuesday. “It is a level of absenteeism that teachers aren’t really prepared to deal with.”

An unexpected finding in the study was a surge in chronic absenteeism in lower grades. Typically, high school students miss more days than elementary school kids. While that remains true, absentee rates rose faster in the earlier grades, said Jordan. One school district saw its absenteeism rate nearly double among students in kindergarten through fourth grade, while another witnessed a 60% increase in absenteeism in kindergarten through sixth grade.

What was not unexpected: Disadvantaged students, who historically miss more school than higher-income peers, saw big jumps in absenteeism during the pandemic. “This is really exacerbating attendance gaps and, ultimately, achievement gaps,” said Jordan.

Comparing attendance rates during COVID is complex because districts held students to varying standards. In some cases, a text exchange with a teacher marked a student “present.” Others required students be online for at least half the day.

“We have these sorts of spotty pictures from different places, but all the preliminary data suggest we are seeing a dramatic increase,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national initiative addressing chronic absence. “We are probably underestimating the amount of learning loss.”

“Left unchecked, the problem threatens to derail efforts to help students make up for lost instructional time during the pandemic and to severely reduce the impact of a $190 billion federal investment in COVID recovery in the educational sector during the past year,” said Toch.

Nationally, Chang said concerns are mounting over absenteeism in grades viewed as foundational to later student success, including kindergarten, where states saw thousands of 5-year-olds disappear from class rolls. Faced with virtual classes, some families resorted to private preschools that met in person, while others opted to keep their kindergartners at home but couldn’t supervise their remote learning.

Georgia, where kindergarten is not required, saw a decline of nearly 10% in enrollment numbers in the fall of 2020, compared to 2019. A fall survey by the University of Oregon found 17% of respondents held off on sending their young children to school, citing safety concerns and an inability to manage their child’s virtual learning.

“Theoretically, some of these kids will come back and you will have 4-year-olds who want to go to kindergarten and 7-year-olds who want to go to kindergarten and kids who want to go to kindergarten who don’t have any pre-K experiences. It seems like a real challenge,” said Jordan.

There are also worries about absences among ninth graders as research suggests a positive freshman learning experience influences whether a student walks across the stage four years later. “We know ninth grade is a critical year; it is an essential year in terms of graduation,” said Chang. “It is very hard to replicate those positive conditions for learning in distance learning. We didn’t have the supports that would normally bring them into high school. If we don’t pay attention to them, we are going to have a dropout crisis in the next year or two.”

So, what prevented students from showing up?

The pandemic left many families grappling with basic needs, including housing, food and health, said Emily Bailard, CEO of EveryDay Labs. More than 50% of families surveyed by EveryDay Labs cited technology barriers to attendance, usually connectivity. “We also heard more than normal about sickness as a barrier to school and family emergencies as a barrier,” said Bailard. Some families faced hurdles in staying on top of hybrid class schedules that often shifted when infection rates spiked.

Reconnecting missing students with learning requires schools to be welcoming, stable and calm places, according to the experts, who urged districts to reach out to families this summer.

“This summer is really about creating bridges to school so that kids who haven’t been around now have the opportunity to be in-person in school, to be around other kids and to practice the routine of showing up every day in another place,” said Chang. “Now, we have some kids who have never been in that routine and a bunch of kids who are out of that routine. This is going to take a multiyear effort. It’s not going to be we’ll make it through the summer and all these effects of COVID will be resolved. The challenges have been so deep that we are going to have to build this over time.”

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