In early 2022, on the heels of winter break, Boston’s Tobin K-8 School was hit hard by the Omicron variant. As many as half the students in some classrooms and nearly one-third of the staff were out with the coronavirus.
Teachers did what they could to keep students on pace after missing days of school at a time. They posted readings, videos, and assignments online, but with no option for remote learning, some students fell behind.
“When students came back, it was very tricky to backfill some of those gaps,” said Caitlin Gaffny, a fourth- and fifth-grade science and math teacher at the school. “You might have one student out Monday to Wednesday and another out beginning Wednesday. To continue to play backup was challenging.”
Gaffny’s students also missed school for transportation reasons, interpersonal struggles following a year of remote learning, and pressures at home like family members losing their jobs, or their lives, to the pandemic.
Across the state, more than 29 percent of Massachusetts public school students, or over 250,000, were chronically absent last school year, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of the academic year, according to data through March 1. That’s more than double the rate prior to the pandemic, when about 13 percent were absent that often.
In large urban districts, chronic absenteeism surged even higher. In Springfield, the state’s second-largest, over half of students missed 10 percent of the school year through March 1. In Boston Public Schools, it was around 40 percent, up 60 percent from prior to the pandemic — although there were exceptions, with East Boston High actually reporting a drop in chronic absenteeism.
Available data suggest a similar trend nationwide, with chronic absenteeism among public school students more than doubling since before the pandemic, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit focused on school attendance.
At Adams Elementary School in East Boston, almost half of the student population had COVID-19 in January, according to Principal Joanna McKeigue Cruz, driving up chronic absenteeism.
“The problem was, everybody unfortunately felt that we were back to normal,” Cruz said. “Nothing was back to normal.”
A new state measure indicates how abnormal the year was. For the first time, Massachusetts counted students missing more than 20 percent of the school year: one day a week, on average. Statewide, that described 8 percent of public school children through March 1 — 76,000 kids, or the equivalent of more than Boston and Springfield Public Schools combined.
The causes were myriad — and often out of anyone’s hands — but the effects on students are likely to be highly damaging regardless, according to experts. Like most of the pandemic’s education impacts, this one has fallen hardest on the highest-needs students, like low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities. Pre-existing gaps in chronic absenteeism widened.
Research shows chronically absent students perform worse in school, graduate at lower rates, and have lower social engagement. There is even evidence that other students suffer from having chronically absent classmates, as teachers focus more attention on keeping the often-absent students up to speed.
“Even before the pandemic, we knew that students who were affected most by chronic absence were higher-poverty students,” Chang said. “They had the least resources to make up for the lost learning opportunities.”
The pandemic worked as a tempest against efforts to keep Boston’s adolescents on track, said Neil Sullivan, the executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which partners with the school district on the “re-engagement center” for students who have dropped out or are chronically absent.
“Adolescence itself has always been a personal hurricane of sorts,” Sullivan said. “When you add this level of oppressive disease in the community, relatives getting sick and dying, huge economic impacts, it becomes very hard to focus on something as routine as going to school. That’s as undeniable as a hurricane.”
Chang said researchers usually cite four causes of chronic absenteeism: barriers to getting to school, like illness and transportation; aversion to school; lack of engagement in school; and misconceptions about attendance rules.
All four were exacerbated by the pandemic, she said. The pandemic raised practical barriers, led to worse school climates, and made it harder to build connections with students. Many families didn’t realize that even though quarantines were required, those missed weeks were still important.
Cruz, the Adams Elementary principal, described tireless efforts from her school’s staff to engage missing students, from home visits with food to regular communications on quarantine rules to a cross-department attendance team that flags students who are chronically absent. When a teacher notices one of those students is absent, they alert the team, who call the child’s home.
“About 70 percent of the time, students will come in late because of that call,” Cruz said.
Similar data is in use across the district, thanks to a widely used new tool that helps alert staff to students who aren’t on track on attendance or who miss multiple days in a row.
Like at the Tobin, teachers stayed after school and worked during their lunch breaks to help students, and made lessons and assignments available online for absent students.
Both Gaffny, the Tobin teacher, and Cruz, the Adams principal, emphasized the social impact of missing school. Expanded social and emotional support this year made “a huge difference,” Cruz said.
“We build and maintain relationships with our families,” Cruz said. “It started pre-pandemic, but I think we became a lot closer as a community due to the pandemic.”
Boston Public Schools has a number of initiatives in place, some funded with federal relief money, to address absenteeism this fall. The “tiered attendance system,” now in 28 schools, offers support to address the causes of absenteeism, while about 30 schools will get “attendance mini grants” for programs like Cruz’s attendance team.
“While we’re focused on attendance interventions, like home visits, we’re also focusing on building culture and breaking down barriers,” said district spokeswoman Gabrielle Farrell. “We view relationships as the key to attendance and believe working with students early on is essential.”
Individual schools have their own interventions. At Dearborn STEM Academy, for example, federal funds are being used for “Saturday Academies” to help chronically absent students make up lost time.
At Adams Elementary, staff tried to connect families of students who missed a lot of school with summer programs. Cruz said she communicates directly with families via e-mail, phone calls, and WhatsApp messages as they prepare for the fall.
“We’re going to make sure we’re on top of it,” Cruz said. “We know which kids are behind.”