Initially, when the pandemic lockdowns lifted, many kids were excited to go back to school and to see their friends. While a few hated the idea of going back, they sucked it up and returned. They knew what they had to do to get through the day and were willing to do it. But things had gone through a massive change.
In many districts, parents were no longer welcome without an appointment. This meant that little treats for birthdays would need to be dropped off at the front desk and not at the classroom. A little moment of thanks for these kids on their birthday was now gone. Reports of people being less tolerant than they were during the lockdowns, less flexibility in rules, and other students were far more vicious than in the past.
When things started returning to normal for the 2021-2022 school year, over a quarter of all students missed over 10% of school. Commonly known as “chronic absenteeism,” before the pandemic, only 15% of students would have fallen into that classification. This surge brings the number to roughly 6.5 million additional students becoming chronically absent. It is also seen most extensively in low-income homes and racially amongst Latino and black students.
In these same groups, the schools provide some of the most important pieces for their education and becoming a well-rounded human being. While socialization was important for everyone to make up for, the counseling and meals that the school would provide for these students was a massive missed opportunity for them. The students who were among the highest percentages of missed classes were also the most in need of these opportunities as they didn’t get them at home. In many instances, the food at school was all that they would receive for the day.
By contrast, the last full no-pandemic school year was 2018-2019. The data from that school year shows that in 2021-2022 absenteeism doubled across the board. What stood out, though, was the lack of correlation between absenteeism and COVID. Every school that reported data for the study had similar trends but at different levels.
A wide variety of reasons for their skipping have come in. Finances, housing instability, transportation, poor substitute teachers, feeling unwelcomed at school, and bullying were some of the top answers that should not be a concern for these kids. Instead, the adults in their lives (especially their parental figures) should be ensuring these are not concerns for them. With the staffing shortages resulting in poor substitute teacher problems, students are getting some of the bottom of the barrel as many are not willing to substitute teach.
Many students are also reporting problems with the lack of flexibility in schoolwork and the reemergence of homework. Even though little to no evidence has been produced to show the efficiency of homework on students and their ability to learn, many are unwilling to give up this historic way of teaching that only serves to fill in the gaps for their shortcomings as educators.
Leading the pack in this trend was Alaska. With 48.6% of students chronically absent, Alaskan Native students led the pack there, with 56.5% falling into that classification. Teacher and Alaska Native Heather Powell pointed out that many of these kids are being raised by their grandparents, who remember the boarding schools they were forced into. On top of that, the Alaskan school calendar fails to consider hunting seasons and what they mean to the Natives. The role many of these children play in harvesting the meat, sinew, and bones that are crucial to their survival and way of life cannot be ignored.
If they want to fix the problems with chronic absenteeism, they need to fix the model they are using to teach these kids. They need to have a good reason to show up to school. Education has stopped being the chief reason for going, especially now that we have learned how useful long-distance learning can be. Not to mention the idea of being an uneducated “influencer” now seems like a real lifestyle for many.