Schools are back in-person — but many students aren't.
Districts across the nation are facing higher chronic absenteeism rates than prior to the pandemic, with percentages reaching as high as 46% in Los Angeles Unified School District, over a quarter in Virginia's Richmond Public Schools, 40% in New York Public Schools, and 44% in Ohio's Akron Public Schools.
In some places, those percentages run even higher for the earlier grades — the student group that was also disproportionately impacted by learning loss, according to assessment results. Chronic absenteeism for kindergartners in Akron, for example, is at 47%.
Chronic absenteeism is commonly defined as students missing at least 10% of a school year, or about 18 days.
"Covid-19, both the Delta and Omicron variants, have contributed to the dramatic increase in the number of students who are absent," said Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works, in an email. Chang said families' fears about returning to school could have contributed to absenteeism, especially in high-poverty communities.
As of fall 2021, prior to omicron's widespread impact on school closures, 22% of parents reported their children at risk of being chronically absent this school year, compared to 8% who said their children had been chronically absent prior to the pandemic, according to McKinsey & Company. That's almost a threefold increase.
What are states doing?
The increase in chronic absenteeism comes as some states that factor average daily attendance into funding formulas fine-tune COVID-19 attendance flexibilities
Those flexibilities and formulas still come with tradeoffs, according to experts.
One is that using attendance disproportionately impacts low-income communities, according to Chang and Jing Liu, assistant professor in education policy at the University of Maryland College Park. Low-income districts almost always have higher absenteeism rates than their wealthier counterparts because of a multitude of challenges that prevent poorer students from attending school regularly, Liu said.
"And we want to acknowledge and maybe reward such schools, instead of penalizing them because of the challenging student body they are serving," Liu said in an email.
Rather than using raw absenteeism rates, Liu said in a paper released Wednesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, value-added attendance measures could be applied as they were found to have no association with school income. Value-added measures are attendance growth rates adjusted for differences in student characteristics and performance across schools, Liu's paper noted.
"If we acknowledge and reward high value added to attendance [in] schools, it might motivate schools to focus more on practices that can effectively boost attendance rates, such as building safer and supportive school environments," Liu said. "I can imagine that such practices over time would reduce the raw absenteeism gaps we see between low-income and wealthier schools."
Another tradeoff: Although districts are padded from fiscal shock in states with flexibility on attendance rates and funding formulas, that may come at the expense of increased attendance. State policies around flexibilities are currently "in flux," said Marguerite Roza, education finance policy expert and director of Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.
"We almost need to double down on our attendance efforts," Roza said. "So I don't think this is a great time to just say we'll just ignore it. Because while that might be a pro-district policy, it's an anti-learning policy."
There is a way to tie attendance to district funding so it doesn't harm low-income communities, said Roza. Instead of financially shocking districts that have lower attendance, states could increase base allocations to districts and then tie financial incentives to increased attendance levels. Pre-pandemic, this strategy saw boosts in attendance rates, Roza added.
If states "keep saying, 'Don't worry about it [attendance], we'll give you all your money anyway … then the districts are not worrying about it."
What can districts do?
Multiple experts attributed drops in attendance to more negative school climate levels, potentially made worse during the pandemic with increased bullying and behavioral issues among students.
"Districts across the country are having the same conversation: How do we reengage students with school after many of them have spent two years online? And how do we get back those students who still haven't returned to school on a daily basis?" said Amber Northern, senior vice president for research at the Fordham Institute.
The organization's report found a link between students' self-reported school climate — especially their perception of school safety and fairness of school rules and discipline — and value-added attendance measures.
"For districts and schools that try to recover from high absenteeism rates, focusing on improving various aspects of school climate/culture might be a fruitful approach," Liu said.
For that to happen, schools must first understand why students disengaged despite schools reopening, said Christine Pitts, resident policy fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
"Students, as well as teachers, lost critical caring relationships and social networks that are important for keeping students engaged," Pitts said. "Teachers are likely trying their hardest to create safe and welcoming environments under challenging circumstances."
Roza, for example, cited Austin Independent School District, which tied teacher pay raises to increased enrollment levels — a strategy that could similarly be used to incentivize attendance.
"Teachers are likely trying their hardest to create safe and welcoming environments under challenging circumstances," Pitts said. Districts could tap community partners and community-based organizations that helped throughout the pandemic to now reengage those students, she added.
Some districts during the pandemic turned to organizations like local churches and other religious groups, as well as YMCAs, for example, to help provide meals or academic support and after-school programs.
Districts should also refine their attendance measures and regularly tap into their data to get a better understanding of what it means, Pitts added.
"Imagine if every school board meeting started with a quick review of crucial student wellness measures like attendance," she said. "Discussing these data may help districts unpack why disengagement and absenteeism remain a challenge, especially for historically underserved student groups."