The ‘who’ and the ‘why’ of chronic student absenteeism are key

by Colyn Ritter

As our country reflects on the decisions made to close schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe damage it did to students’ academic progress, it would be easy to assume students being out of school is a problem of the past.

It would be easy, but it would also be wrong.

As it turns out, while schools have reopened and returned to normal, millions of students are missing.

According to a recent report from Stanford University, chronic absenteeism, defined as when students miss roughly 18 days of school year, is on the rise in 40 states across the country. In the 2021-22 school year, there were 6.5 million more students chronically absent than in the 2018-19 school year, an increase of roughly 14%.

The problem does not appear to be going away anytime soon. In fact, initial estimates from 2022-23 data imply chronic absenteeism will remain extremely high. An analysis from Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University forecasts chronic absenteeism in 2022-23 to be roughly 28%, nearly double the pre-pandemic rate.

But it isn’t just the rate of change that is different, it is also the populations of students who are chronically absent.

Historically, students with learning disabilities and students living in poverty were more likely than other students to be chronically absent. As chronic absenteeism has grown massively post-pandemic, it has become more frequent among minority and LGBTQ teens, according to a recent survey of teens conducted by EdChoice and Morning Consult.

When surveyed in August, an alarming 19% of teens self-reported missing more than 15 whole days of school. But among Black teens, as well as those from the LGBTQ community, 25% reported missing more than 15 whole days of school in the past school year. It’s important to note that these are snapshots of data at a single point in time. It is still very concerning, however, and we desperately need more data parsing out which groups of students are chronically absent.

Mental health appears to be playing a role as well. According to a recent student survey from the EdWeek Research Center, 16% of students who were absent for at least one day in the past year (for reasons other than physical illness) said they didn’t attend because of anxiety. Another 12% reported feeling too sad or depressed to attend school. Anxiety was the second most common reason among students for missing school, trailing only bad weather as the top reason.

Recent EdChoice and Morning Consult polling supports this as well. For example, 27% of teenagers feel their school harms their personal happiness. One-fourth of teens indicated they are feeling “overwhelmed.” When asked whether they feel their mental health is supported by their school, only 37% of teenagers felt supported.

There is no playbook to rely on to address an extremely high rate of chronic absenteeism coming out of a pandemic. Identifying effective solutions can’t happen without necessary information regarding the “who” and the “why” of chronic absenteeism.

As abundant data exist showing students’ mental health and academic success have eroded as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be naïve to ignore the possibility that these realities have a role to play in the increase of chronic absenteeism rates. Early detection and increased engagement are some of the solutions in the past that have shown positive effects in curbing chronic absenteeism. But, as the problem has grown to an unprecedented level, it is fair to wonder whether the tools used in the past are still effective. That is one reason why this new reality is so worrisome.

The problem of chronic absenteeism is unlikely to improve anytime soon. The approaches relied upon in the past to fight chronic absenteeism are almost certainly not going to suffice given the growth of the problem. There is no world where the proper academic recovery can begin without a serious understanding of, and proactive approach to curbing, chronic absenteeism. Every second counts.

Colyn Ritter is a research associate at EdChoice, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to advance educational freedom and choice for all students as a pathway to successful lives and a stronger society.