Nearly Half of Teachers Had Students Who Never Showed Up to Class Last Year: Report

Nearly Half of Teachers Had Students Who Never Showed Up to Class Last Year: Report

According to new federal data, nearly half of public school teachers in the United States reported at least one student who was enrolled but never showed up for a class during the 2020-21 school year, providing one of the first national glimpses of the major challenges that sidelined student learning and the types of schools they left behind.

The report, which was first released by the Government Accountability Office last month but has since been revised with fresh material, is part of the federal government’s ongoing attempts to understand how the epidemic impacted the country’s public school system. The information was gathered from a nationally representative poll of public school teachers conducted by Gallup for the GAO during the 2020-21 school year.

Teachers in high school were the hardest hit, with roughly two-thirds, or 65 percent, having at least one kid who never showed up, compared to less than half of teachers in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Furthermore, teachers in urban schools were significantly more likely than those in rural and suburban schools to report having students who never showed up – 65 percent versus 45 percent and 44 percent, respectively – as were teachers who taught in schools where the majority of students enrolled were students of color, 56 percent versus those who taught in majority-white schools, 45 percent.

School economic demographics also played a role. For example, 32 percent of teachers at low-poverty schools reported having children who never showed up, compared to 60 percent of teachers in schools with 80 percent to 100 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

While teachers reported a variety of barriers to their student’s attendance, the issues were primarily divided into two categories: minimal or no adult assistance or support at home, and difficulty learning in or adapting to the virtual environment.

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Competing demands on time, such as caring for a family member or having work responsibilities that interfered with education, were common causes for older students’ absence. Providing care to a family member was “somewhat” or “major” for over half of instructors in grades three through eight and grades nine through twelve, compared to around one-quarter of teachers in kindergarten to grade two. Job commitments interfered with education for 57 percent of instructors in schools nine through twelve, whereas just 17 percent of teachers in grades three to eight cited work commitments as a factor.

Though data is limited and inconsistent due to the various ways states and districts collect it, education policymakers have warned that the long-term impact of coronavirus-related school disruptions over the last two years on student enrollment and attendance is still unknown, particularly for students who became completely disconnected from school. The report is the first comprehensive examination of the barriers that kept students locked out – even those enrolled in schools that provided support, such as internet-connected devices and free Wi-Fi – and what it would take to entice them back.

“The high rates of chronic absences indicate that good learning circumstances are eroding at a systemic level,” says Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, executive director and vice president of Attendance Works, a nonprofit group that analyzes absenteeism and its consequences.

“And, in light of the last two variants, the challenges of ensuring that school is a healthy and safe place is a huge issue – making sure that kids and families have access to health care, making sure that when they get to school that a school is a place where they feel a sense of belonging and support,” she says. “All of those things were quite difficult to implement.”

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“These are things that are more than attendance, but they have an impact on attendance when they don’t exist.”

The GAO report comes as a few states and school districts began to disclose chronic absenteeism data – that is, data on kids who have missed 10% or more of a school year, or around 18 days.

This year, 40 percent of public school kids in New York City, the country’s largest school system, have been chronically absent, up from 26 percent during the 2018-19 school year. In Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest school district, 46 percent of pupils – more than 200,000 in total – have been chronically absent, up from 19 percent before the outbreak.

However, the difficulties, which have coincided with enrollment declines, are not limited to the country’s largest city school districts.

According to the annual New Jersey School Performance Reports, chronic absenteeism climbed by 30 percent among the 1.4 million pupils enrolled in public schools in the state. The number of chronically absent children in Camden, one of the last school districts in the state to return to full-time, five-day-a-week in-person schooling, increased from 34% in the 2018-19 school year to 57 percent in the 2020-21 school year.

According to new data from Akron, half of all pupils are chronically absent. Two-thirds of high school seniors have missed at least 10% of the school year, and 44 percent have missed more than 20%. Moreover, a quarter of pupils in Richmond are classified as chronically absent. So far this year, 30 percent of Jefferson County’s 100,000 public school children have missed at least 18 days of school.

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Most states and districts, Nai-Lin Chang believes, are underestimating the true situation.

“The issue with the ’20-21 data is that so much of it was remote, and our remote attendance-taking techniques varied greatly, and we weren’t always that strict,” she adds. “So you see some rises, but my feeling is that it’s probably considerably greater in most states.”

“Right present, a doubling of chronic absenteeism is not at all unusual,” says Nai-Lin Chang. “A 40 percent level is not uncommon, which is really concerning and worrisome. And that means that we’ll have to step up our involvement and support efforts.”

Because the school year is still in session and data is scarce, officials have struggled to get a sense of the situation at the national level. According to a December 2021 study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 22% of parents said their child had missed at least four days of school at that time in the year, putting them on course to be classified as chronically absent by the end of the school year. This is a concerning statistic because it is up from the 18% of families who reported chronic absenteeism last spring. Prior to the pandemic, only 8% of parents felt their child was on course to be chronically absent.

If historical correlations between chronic absence and high school graduation remain constant, researchers at Attendance Works estimate that the high levels of absenteeism reported in the McKinsey survey could result in an additional 1.7 million to 3.3 million students in grades eight to twelve dropping out of school.

“For a lot of students, the building bricks have been undermined,” says Nai-Lin Chang. “We’ll have to reinvest as well.”

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