Wave of student absences adds pressure on metro Atlanta schools

Stonewall Tell Elementary School third grade teacher Sadeka Gillard works with her students on their reading assignment Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.  The school did not report substantial absences in January, but it has numerous strategies to help students who do miss class. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Stonewall Tell Elementary School third grade teacher Sadeka Gillard works with her students on their reading assignment Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. The school did not report substantial absences in January, but it has numerous strategies to help students who do miss class. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

As the omicron variant gripped metro Atlanta earlier this month, tens of thousands of students missed school.

The mass absences created more challenges for schools already stressed by staffing shortages and concerned about learning loss due to the pandemic. With many students out at once, would they fall further behind?

“You’ve got kids in all these different places,” said Hedy Chang, who leads Attendance Works, a national group that promotes student attendance. “All of that was disrupted in the fall. And now, when you would have hoped we could come back to a more normal January, it’s even worse disruption.”

Across Georgia, the seven-day rolling average of new confirmed and probable coronavirus infections for all ages hit its high point Jan. 11 at nearly 21,000. But the rolling average of infections in school-aged children — those 5 to 17 — continues to remain high.

In Cobb County, more than 12,000 students were out the first day of the second semester, more than double the number missing in 2020, according to data obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open-records request. Gwinnett County schools reported 28,799 absences on the first day, about 16% of students.

Schools in Clayton and DeKalb counties and in Atlanta switched to online classes for a few days. When in-person learning resumed, those districts each reported a few thousand more student absences compared to the same period two years ago.

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Stonewall Tell Elementary School third grader Malachi johnson works on his reading assignment Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. The school did not report substantial absences in January, but it has numerous strategies to help students who do miss class. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Stonewall Tell Elementary School third grader Malachi johnson works on his reading assignment Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.  The school did not report substantial absences in January, but it has numerous strategies to help students who do miss class. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

caption arrowCaption
Stonewall Tell Elementary School third grader Malachi johnson works on his reading assignment Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. The school did not report substantial absences in January, but it has numerous strategies to help students who do miss class. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Linda Boyd, principal at Gwinnett County’s Twin Rivers Middle School, said schools are used to navigating higher absences in January because of the flu, but quarantining and the length of time students miss have had an impact. She said the first full week of classes, about 9% of students were absent. About 4% are absent on an average day.

“There is a level of urgency to maintain the instructional calendar that I believe teachers feel,” Boyd said, noting they are trying to prepare students for state assessments in the spring.

Adunni Noibi missed the first four days of class this month at North Gwinnett High School. She let her teachers know, and half sent her work or posted items in their online classroom.

Why it matters

School attendance is key to academic success. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, national data indicate more students have been chronically absent, defined by experts as missing 15 days or more during the school year. Lower attendance numbers in metro Atlanta in early January, amid the omicron surge, show that absences remain a hurdle for schools.

But she didn’t hear back from the others until she returned to school. She worried about her grades falling and had to complete makeup work and tests.

“I was looking things up on YouTube or trying to teach myself,” said Noibi, a sophomore. “I really needed the instruction.”

She thought the district should have shifted to virtual learning.

DeKalb teacher Mary Helen Bowen said she spent more time than usual reviewing lessons in early January with her second graders.

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About half of her 25 students logged on during the first few virtual days. More students showed up when in-person learning resumed the following week. But several were absent because they were sick, awaiting COVID-19 test results or getting vaccinated.

When children return after missing multiple days, Bowen stands behind them as she explains a concept, guiding them step by step. That’s harder to do when several students need extra attention.

“When I have five or six of those … it does take a lot out of the lesson and it slows down the pace of the entire class,” she said.

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Stonewall Tell Elementary School third grade teacher Patrick O'Connell works with a small group of students during class Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. The school did not report substantial absences in January, but it has numerous strategies to help students who do miss class. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Stonewall Tell Elementary School third grade teacher Patrick O'Connell works with a small group of students  during class Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.  The school did not report substantial absences in January, but it has numerous strategies to help students who do miss class. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

caption arrowCaption
Stonewall Tell Elementary School third grade teacher Patrick O'Connell works with a small group of students during class Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. The school did not report substantial absences in January, but it has numerous strategies to help students who do miss class. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Sadeka Gillard, a third grade teacher at Stonewall Tell Elementary School in College Park, hasn’t had students out on quarantine but has had children miss school to get vaccinated or for other reasons. When that happens, she posts work online and stays in touch with parents. She also works one-on-one with students who need it.

“That has been able to help fill the gap and not see a big decline if they have had to be out,” Gillard said.

Chang, the executive director for Attendance Works, said the national data on absences during the pandemic is worrisome.

About 8% of parents surveyed by the firm McKinsey & Company reported that their child missed 15 or more days of school before the pandemic, a level considered “chronic absenteeism.” By last fall, 22% of parents said their child is on pace to be chronically absent this school year.

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Since the pandemic’s early days at Northwood Elementary School in Roswell, parents have been able to pick up materials from an outdoor rack after-hours and on weekends.

Principal Ritu Ahuja said the school communicates frequently with parents about absences and provides tutoring and other tools to help students.

“There are children who will catch up because their parents give them a ton of support, and there are children who don’t catch up,” she said. “We definitely know our school very well. We know kid by kid what is happening.”

Reporters Cassidy Alexander, Josh Reyes, Leon Stafford and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.

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