Why are millions of children in the US missing school for weeks?

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — As face-to-face classes resumed after being shut down by the pandemic, Rousmery Negrón and her 11-year-old son both noticed a change: The school seemed less welcoming.

Parents are no longer allowed to enter the building without an appointment, the penalties are harsher. Everyone seemed less tolerant and more angry. Negrón’s son told her he heard a teacher make fun of his learning difficulties and give him an ugly name.

Her son no longer wanted to go to school. And she didn’t feel like he was safe there.

He would end up missing more than five months of sixth grade.

Across the country, record numbers of students have been absent since schools reopened during the pandemic. According to the latest available data, more than a quarter of students missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year, resulting in chronic absenteeism. Before the pandemic, only 15% of students missed school that many times.

Overall, an estimated 6.5 million additional students were chronically absent, according to data compiled by Stanford University professor of education Thomas Dee in collaboration with The Associated Press. Combined, the data from 40 states and Washington, DC provide the most comprehensive record of absenteeism in the country. Accordingly, absenteeism was more common among Hispanic, Black, and low-income students Dee’s analysis.

Adding to absenteeism is time students missed during school closures and pandemic disruptions. They cost crucial instructional time as schools work to recover from massive learning setbacks.

Absent students miss not only classes, but all the other things the school provides—meals, counseling, socialization. Finally, students who are chronically absent—that is, 18 or more days a year in most places—are at greater risk of failing to learn to read and eventually dropping out of college.

“The long-term consequences of dropping out of school are devastating. And the pandemic has absolutely made things worse and brought in more students,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit organization that addresses chronic absenteeism.

In seven states, the rate of chronic absenteeism in children doubled in the 2021-22 school year, compared to pre-pandemic 2018-19. Absenteeism worsened in all states with available data — specifically, the analysis found that chronic absenteeism growth was not highly correlated with states’ COVID rates.

Children stay at home for a myriad of reasons: finances, housing insecurity, illness, transportation issues, understaffing at school, anxiety, depression, bullying, and a general feeling of being unwelcome to school.

And the impact of online learning remains: relationships at school have failed, and after months at home, many parents and students see no point in attending class regularly.

“For almost two years we have been telling families that school can look different and that schoolwork can be done outside of the traditional 8-3 day time. “The families have gotten used to it,” said Elmer Roldan of Communities in Schools of Los Angeles, which helps schools minister to absentee students.

When classrooms closed in March 2020, Negrón was somewhat relieved that her two sons were home in Springfield. Ever since the 2012 shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, Negrón, who grew up in Puerto Rico, was convinced that mainland America’s schools were dangerous.

A year after in-person classes resumed, she said, staff sent her son to a class for students with disabilities, citing hyperactive and distracted behavior. He felt unwelcome and insecure. Now it seemed to Negrón that there was also danger within the school.

“He needs to learn,” said Negrón, a single mom who works as a cook at another school. “He is very intelligent. But I’m not going to waste my time and money on uniforms for him to go to a school where he just flunks.”

For people who have long dealt with chronic absenteeism, the post-COVID era feels different. Some of the things that keep students from going to school remain — illness, economic hardship — but “something has changed,” said Todd Langager, who helps San Diego County schools fight absenteeism. He sees that students who have already felt unseen or without a caring adult at school are feeling even more isolated.

Alaska leads the way in absenteeism, with 48.6% of students missing significant parts of school. The Alaska-born student rate was higher at 56.5%.

These students face poverty and a lack of mental health services, plus they have a school calendar that isn’t geared towards traditional hunting and fishing activities, said Heather Powell, a teacher and a native of Alaska. Many students are raised by grandparents who remember that the government forced local children into boarding schools.

“Our families don’t value education because we never valued it,” Powell said.

In New York, Marisa Kosek said son James lost the connections he nurtured at his school – and with it his desire to attend classes at all. James, 12, has autism and initially struggled with online learning and then a hybrid model. During his absence, he met his teachers in the neighborhood. They encouraged him to return and he did.

But when he moved to a different neighborhood for middle school, he didn’t know anyone. He lost interest and missed more than 100 days in sixth grade. The next year, his mother urged him to repeat the class – and he missed all but five days.

His mother, a high school teacher, enlisted help: relatives, therapists, the New York Crisis Unit. But James just wanted to stay home. He’s worried because he knows he’s behind and has lost his stamina.

“Being around people at school all day and trying to act ‘normal’ is tiring,” Kosek said. Now she is more confident as James has been accepted into a private boarding school that specializes in students with autism.

Some students were regularly absent due to medical and staffing issues. Juan Ballina, 17, suffers from epilepsy; In the event of a seizure, a trained worker who can administer medication must be nearby. But after COVID-19, many school nurses retired or sought better pay in hospitals, compounding the nationwide shortage.

Last year Juan’s nurse was on vacation. His school could not find a replacement. He missed more than 90 days of his high school in Chula Vista, California.

“I was lonely,” Ballina said. “I missed my friends.”

School started again last month. So far Juan has been there with his nurse. But his mother, Carmen Ballina, said the effects of his absence lingered: “He used to read a lot more. I don’t think he’s more motivated.”

Another lasting effect of the pandemic: Educators and experts say some parents and students have been conditioned to stay home at the slightest sign of illness.

Renee Slater’s daughter rarely missed school before the pandemic. But last school year, the A-grade middle school student insisted on staying home for 20 days because she just wasn’t feeling well.

“As they get older, you can’t physically put them in the car — you can only take privilege away from them, and that doesn’t always work,” said Slater, who teaches in the rural California county where her daughter attends. “She doesn’t like school, it’s just a change in attitude.”

Most states have not yet released school enrollment data for 2022–23, the final school year. Based on the few numbers that have shared with us, it seems that the trend towards chronic absenteeism could continue for a long time. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, chronic absenteeism rates remained twice as high as before the pandemic.

In Negrón’s hometown of Springfield, 39% of students were chronically absent in their senior year, an improvement from 50% the year before. The rates are higher for students with disabilities.

While Negrón’s son wasn’t going to school, she tried to keep up, she said. She picked up a weekly folder of worksheets and homework; He couldn’t finish it because he didn’t know the material.

“He was in so much trouble and the situation made him depressed,” Negrón said.

Last year she filed a complaint asking officials to give her son compensation and allow him to attend a private special school. The judge sided with the district.

Now she is looking forward to the new year with fear. Your son doesn’t want to come back. Negrón said she will only consider it if the county grants her request to learn it in a mainstream classroom with a personal assistant. The district told the AP that it could not comment on individual student cases due to privacy concerns.

Negrón wishes she could homeschool her sons, but she has to work and fears they would suffer from the isolation.

“If I had another option, I wouldn’t send her to school,” she said.

Tom Vazquez

Tom Vazquez is a USTimeToday U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Tom Vazquez joined USTimeToday in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with Tom Vazquez by emailing tomvazquez@ustimetoday.com.

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