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Two out of five high school juniors and seniors in Boston Public Schools were chronically absent from school in the fall — a sharp rise from pre-pandemic absentee rates that educators say could herald a devastating decline in the number of city students completing high school.
The most striking increases in chronic absenteeism — defined as missing at least 10 percent of classes — occurred among Black, Latino, disabled, and English-learner students, according to Boston school district data, which showed that across all grades, the chronically absent rate rose from 21 to 26 percent.
The disparities reveal yet another way the pandemic has inordinately harmed disadvantaged communities, leaving potentially lasting impacts on students’ futures, educators and students said.
They spoke in interviews of one Boston middle school student who couldn’t always log on to classes from his mother’s car; she worked as a driver for Uber Eats and had no child care. An academically struggling immigrant lost his motivation for school after getting a job as a busboy to support his family. A third student couldn’t focus on remote classes after losing two close relatives to COVID.
“It’s very clear that (the district) doesn’t have the resources to support these students,” said Charlene Adames-Pimentel, a Dominican-American senior at Boston Latin Academy. While wealthier students have solid Internet, laptops, quiet homes, and few financial or baby-sitting responsibilities, she said, “it’s so difficult for children that look like me and come from projects like mine to even log into the classroom.”
At least 2,900 high school juniors and seniors were chronically absent from September through December — a rise of nearly 500 from pre-pandemic times.
Overall, approximately one-third of all Black and Latino students were deemed chronically absent, substantial increases from 2019. Meanwhile, the attendance of white and Asian-American students scarcely shifted; about 12 and 9 percent of those students, respectively, were chronically absent in the fall.
The reasons for the sharply increased absenteeism rates in some student groups speak to the pandemic’s disparate impact on Black, Latino, and low-income communities. Some students are dealing with severe economic challenges and have taken jobs to help keep their families afloat. Others grapple with pandemic-induced mental health struggles and trauma.
Numerous reports have shown that Black and Latino students are less likely to have reliable laptops and Internet access. And even with good technology, students with disabilities or limited English often struggle to learn remotely without substantial support.
Khymani James, the student representative of the Boston School Committee and a senior at Boston Latin Academy, said many Black and Latino students believe the curriculum doesn’t feel relevant in this moment of heightened inequality and racial justice uprising. He wishes civics classes focused on how to participate in Boston’s democracy, for instance. Students are exhausted from what they see as irrelevant busy work, he added.
“Some students aren’t going because they’re simply burned out,” he said. “They can’t take it anymore.”
Chronic absenteeism has been shown to increase a student’s chance of dropping out seven-fold, according to research from the University of Utah. But many educators hope that most current absentee students will return when classrooms reopen more fully this spring.
Vania de la Rosa, who teaches ninth grade at East Boston High School, said about half of her students, most of them recent immigrants, disappeared when schools closed in March.
Despite her constant calls and texts, many of them remained among the “chronically absent” in the fall, as they expanded work hours to support their struggling families.
To boost motivation among remaining students, she gave them an assignment to create videos about why they should stay in school. “We talk about the importance of getting a diploma and how it can help you get a different type of job,” she said. “I want them to see the bigger picture.”
Most of her students are recent immigrants who read their native Spanish at an elementary-school level. One in three English learners was chronically absent last fall, an 8-percentage point increase over the year before.
One English learner, Yessica Soriano, 19, who moved two years ago from El Salvador and cooks in a restaurant five nights a week, has faithfully showed up for classes. Yet she understands why many of her peers vanished. The challenge of paying bills, learning a new language, and figuring out how to use computers can feel insurmountable without classmates and teachers around to help motivate them, she said.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t do it anymore,” she said in Spanish. “I ask God to help me learn better English so I can understand, but it’s been so hard. ... I want to be a successful person.”
For some students, losing family to COVID has derailed their capacity to focus on school. One 11th grader who lost two beloved aunts to COVID has since struggled to care about classes, said his attorney, Elizabeth McIntyre, with Greater Boston Legal Services.
“He is pretty done,” McIntyre said. “Imagine that happening and someone telling you it’s important for you to learn trig?”
And even for students who haven’t experienced tragedy, Zoom is hardly a motivating medium.
“The fact that we have the option to click a button and sign off — I’m not surprised that many people feel like it’s optional,” said Ajanee Igharo, a junior at Boston Latin Academy.
Boston’s increase in student absenteeism is in line with national trends in other large urban school districts, including in Connecticut and Ohio, experts said.
“The levels of chronic absences we’re seeing are unprecedented in this country,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit focused on school attendance.
In Boston, the district is working to re-engage students through phone calls, texts, and home visits by teachers and social workers. Each school has teams that connect families to food, housing, health, and technology resources. But efforts can vary across schools, so the district is implementing a new software program that allows teachers to more easily refer students for services and confirm that they get them, said Corey Harris, Boston Public Schools’ chief accountability officer.
District officials understand many absences are tied to poverty, so they are trying to shift toward less punitive policies, Harris said. For decades, students with 12 unexcused absences per year received no credit and an F grade, forcing them to retake the class to graduate. But soon, Harris said, chronically absent students will be allowed to complete their coursework after the semester has ended for a passing grade.
The current policy contributed to racial disparities in graduation rates, Harris said. Last fall, for instance, 57 percent of students receiving no credit were Black, although Black students only make up 33 percent of students overall.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius recently unveiled the district’s proposed budget for next year, which includes hiring 175 additional family liaisons and social workers. She has stressed that students’ mental health and health and safety needs must be addressed before they can focus fully on academics.
But Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the district needs far more staff of all kinds to curb absentee rates. Many students have grown disengaged as their teachers simultaneously instruct students in person and at home, she said. She called on Boston to hire staff to create smaller class sizes like Medway and other Massachusetts towns have done.
“Otherwise this is going to be a very, very long spring that will further disengage students,” Tang said.
Many students with disabilities have been especially hard hit, with the chronic absenteeism rate rising from 29 percent pre-pandemic to 37 percent last fall. Some students simply can’t engage with teachers or therapists through computer screens, said Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council.
With all Boston Public School students scheduled to be offered in-person learning by late March, Harvey believes attendance will increase. But communities of color, which were hit hardest by the virus, are still wary of returning to classrooms. For families who choose to stay home, she said, the district should offer in-home services.
McIntyre, the attorney, is most concerned about the longer-term effects on high schoolers. After the first polio epidemic shuttered schools in 1916, many young students bounced back while teenagers got jobs and never returned to school, she said, citing a published study. Students who dropped out a century ago fared better than dropouts today, as more jobs require a high school degree.
“I do worry about a coming dropout crisis,” McIntyre said.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.