School districts across the nation are struggling with the resurgence of a problem that most Americans probably associate with a bygone era: chronic absenteeism. Too many students — urban and rural, young and old, of every race and background — are not showing up for class. And while badge-wearing truant officers of yore may not be the answer, schools clearly need to step up efforts to get kids back in class.
Statistics show that in the wake of pandemic closures, districts across the nation are struggling with record levels of chronic absenteeism — defined as a student missing more than 10 percent of the school year, or generally 18 school days. When schools returned to in-person learning, school attendance plummeted. But the current levels of chronic absenteeism haven’t returned to pre-pandemic numbers.
Nearly 1 in 4 students in Massachusetts were chronically absent in the 2022-2023 school year, according to data from state education authorities, and the rate jumped 72 percent after the pandemic. Students are chronically missing from school across all racial and socioeconomic groups, all grades, and in districts both in gateway cities and in wealthy suburban areas.
Research shows that students who consistently miss school in the early grades are much less likely to read at grade level by third grade, which means they’d be four times more likely to drop out of school than their peers who read proficiently. If a student becomes chronically absent any year between grades 8 and 12, they are roughly 7 times more likely to drop out.
Why have so many kids been absent? Jeff Riley, the commissioner of the Massachusetts department of elementary and secondary education, theorized during a recent board of elementary and secondary education meeting that “[t]he break in the routine of school-going culture during the pandemic is the root cause of the problem here.” Pandemic-related changes to school rules and practices, such as less stringent consequences for children who miss school, widespread transportation challenges, and the notion that “in-person school feels outdated,” may also have contributed, wrote Tim Daly, chief executive officer of EdNavigator, an education nonprofit, in a series of blog posts.
Last month Riley announced a $4 million fund to help districts better track students who are absent and engage their families. Additionally, the board of education will consider incentivizing schools to focus on this problem by temporarily giving more weight to how schools are handling chronic absenteeism in the schools’ state assessments, said Jacqueline Reis, communications director at the state’s department of elementary and secondary education, in a statement. The department identified more than 1,300 “attendance priority schools where chronic absenteeism rates remain especially high,” according to Reis. They represent almost three quarters of all schools statewide.
A few million dollars is certainly welcome but it’s clear the record-high chronic absenteeism rates will require more fresh thinking and solutions.
Former secretary of education Jim Peyser doesn’t believe the problem is about money. “If you’d multiply that $4 million by 10, I don’t think it would matter so much because I believe districts already have the money they need,” he said in an interview. “It’s that they need to make it a priority.” Peyser also said that the reasons why students are absent are many and varied. “People are struggling to understand exactly what’s going on in terms of why the numbers remain so high.” But parents and schools must get serious about conveying a clear message that missing school is just not acceptable.
Peyser said that outreach to parents of absent students is key. Paul Reville, another former secretary of education in Massachusetts, agrees that “to fix this situation, what schools can do is to get more personalized.” It’s why Reville has been a big proponent of the idea of districts hiring “navigators,” somebody who can be a direct link to parents in school systems.
A navigator would be “someone who is knowledgeable and can help [families] navigate not just the academic system, but outside systems to get what they need. And somebody who can build a personal relationship. The reason kids are going to come back is if they feel connected to and obligated to meet the expectations of people who are part of the school environment. Somebody who looks you in the eye and says, ‘I’m expecting great things of you and I’m going to hold you accountable.’ ” Behavioral science research suggests reaching out to parents can be an effective way to get kids back in school.
Schools may also need to revisit the kind of pandemic-related policy changes Daly identified. In general terms, schools have loosened some rules and policies around attendance; for instance, “allowing students to participate in extracurriculars” during the school day even if they’ve missed class time, giving them “unlimited time to make up work missed during absences,” and removing limits on “the number of unexcused absences a student can have and still receive credit for a course.”
While a full picture of the root causes of the chronic absenteeism crisis may remain unclear for a while, districts must start by prioritizing the issue and taking it seriously, and by trying out strategies like dedicated outreach to families. Broadly speaking, school officials must also “stop enabling absenteeism,” as Daly noted. Daily attendance was a norm built up over generations, in part by imposing consequences on students when they missed class. As simplistic as it sounds, enforcing those kind of rules again will have to be one part of the path to rebuilding the norm that school attendance isn’t optional.
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