School attendance still isn't what it was before COVID By some estimates, chronic absenteeism doubled during the pandemic. Now, about halfway through the most "normal" school year since 2020, the situation hasn't improved in many places.

3 years since the pandemic wrecked attendance, kids still aren't showing up to school

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Why aren't kids showing up to class? That's a question many educators are asking this school year. By some estimates, chronic absenteeism doubled during the pandemic. And now, about halfway through the most normal school year since 2020, the situation hasn't improved in many places. And that means more students are at risk of falling behind and even dropping out. NPR's Jonaki Mehta looked at what's keeping students from going to school and what can be done to bring them back.

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: When the school year began, Isaac Moreno (ph) just did not want to go. He was transitioning to junior high after spending his last two years of elementary school mostly at home in Los Angeles.

ISAAC MORENO: I think the reason I didn't like it at first was because I hadn't been to a middle school, and the schedule was really different and everything.

MEHTA: He says he never really liked school to begin with. So after 2 1/2 years of pandemic learning, going back five days a week in person was a major adjustment.

ISAAC: Like, before I was going to one class, and I would split up into eight different classes. And it was just, like, a lot of work.

JESSICA MORENO: Three days a week or four days a week, he would say to me, I'm sick. I don't feel OK. Can you just pick me up? I don't want to be here today.

MEHTA: That's Isaac's mom Jessica Moreno. She says Isaac's missed 10 days of school so far this year. That means he's at risk of being chronically absent. That's when a student misses 10% or more of the school year. Students who are chronically absent tend to have trouble with reading and lower test scores, and they're more likely to drop out of school. Here's Hedy Chang. She leads the research organization Attendance Works.

HEDY CHANG: Before the pandemic, about 8 million students were considered chronically absent in the United States. By the end of last school year, that number is likely 16 million students.

MEHTA: In other words, she says, the number of students who lost the routine of going to school doubled.

H CHANG: They've lost connections to peers. They've lost connections to adults. And it has certainly been exacerbated by very challenging staffing issues in schools.

MEHTA: Federal data on chronic absenteeism only comes out once a year, so it's hard to get a full picture of where things stand right now. But Chang says she hasn't seen the kind of recovery she'd hoped for.

H CHANG: I think people have been a little bit under the false impression that when COVID became more endemic - that that would then result in a significant improvement in chronic absence. And I'm not seeing that.

MEHTA: We didn't see it, either. In a survey of more than 20 school districts across the country, NPR found most still had heightened levels of chronic absenteeism. School leaders told us there are lots of reasons for this.

STEVE CARLSON: There's so much more fear of sending children to a place where there's lots of people gathered.

MEL ATKINS: So when you think of housing, dealing with homelessness, affordable transportation, maybe...

RYAN VOEGTLIN: Transportation. I think mental health - I'm sure that plays a part, too.

MEHTA: That was Steve Carlson, Mel Atkins and Ryan Voegtlin, school leaders in New Mexico, Michigan and Maryland. They echoed challenges we heard from educators in rural, suburban and urban districts. Voegtlin is the director of student services in Anne Arundel County Public Schools. He sees the problem in his county getting worse and worse.

VOEGTLIN: I would say transportation has been our No. 1 issue this year. We're short bus drivers. We have struggled all year to cover all bus routes. You know, that impacts a lot of our higher-poverty areas, where some of our parents don't have as flexible jobs or they may not have access to their own transportation.

MEHTA: Steve Carlson leads the school district in San Juan County, N.M. It's mostly rural, and part of it's in Navajo Nation. Attendance in his district has improved over last year, but it's nowhere near pre-pandemic times. The immense loss from COVID is still raw for families in his district.

CARLSON: Navajo Nation suffered from the pandemic in crazy proportions compared to the rest of the nation. As a matter of fact, we still have - in our schools, we still have a mask mandate. And we're dealing with a lot of mental health issues.

MEHTA: All reasons showing up to school has been harder for his students. As is often the case in education, kids living in poverty, students of color and children with disabilities are more likely to be chronically absent. School leaders told me they're trying all kinds of things to bring kids back to school, and they're using COVID relief money to pay for those efforts. Here's Carlson again.

CARLSON: So we've brought in social-emotional learning help. We have kind of extra counselors.

MEHTA: His district is also investing in a research-backed strategy that's proven to show results - knocking on doors.

H CHANG: Home visits can be very effective when they're done well.

MEHTA: That's Hedy Chang again. The state of Connecticut put close to $11 million of its federal relief aid toward a home visit program. Six months later, home visits improved attendance by about 15 percentage points. Chang says high-quality, regular visits lead to strong relationships between schools and their students, relationships that give kids a sense of belonging. Another thing schools can do to help attendance is collect data throughout the school year, not just once at the end of the year.

H CHANG: When you look at your data regularly, it can allow you to reach out to students before the challenges are so entrenched that you can't turn them around.

ATKINS: We've looked at data on a weekly or biweekly basis.

MEHTA: That's Mel Atkins. He leads attendance efforts for Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan. For years, his district didn't just gather data. They shared it in big ways.

ATKINS: We had these eight-foot leaderboards in the building that displayed our monthly data. And it wasn't always good, but what it did was spark a conversation.

MEHTA: A conversation that got lots of community leaders educated and involved in a robust program to get kids to school. Within three years, they cut chronic absenteeism by more than half. The pandemic hampered those efforts. But this year Atkins and his team are focused on bringing back a playbook they already know works. And Hedy Chang wants school leaders to know even though it's more than halfway through the school year, there is still time.

H CHANG: It's not too late to identify the kids struggling in the first semester and invest in outreach. You still have enough time to improve attendance.

MEHTA: Isaac Moreno also has time to improve his attendance and avoid becoming chronically absent this year. He tells me going to school still feels like a lot, but there are some things he looks forward to now.

ISAAC: Just recently, my school opened up a bunch of, like, sports for middle schoolers, and I think that's something that kind of made school fun again.

MEHTA: What do you play?

ISAAC: I play basketball.

MORENO: I see a big difference in the past two months. He now has friends, and it is giving him his life back.

MEHTA: Back in school and back to some kind of normal. Jonaki Mehta, NPR News.


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