Why More Kids Are Becoming Chronically Absent From School

The stressors of returning to in-person schooling in the wake of the pandemic have led to an increase in the number of chronically absent students.

By Charlene Badasie | Published

chronically absent

The number of chronically absent school students has always been a concern for the American education system. According to data from the Attendance Works research group, approximately eight million kids missed 10 percent of classes in the academic year. But by the middle of 2022, the figure had doubled to 16 million.

The problem is largely due to the global pandemic, whose effects can still be found among the chronically absent. “I think people have been under the false impression that when Covid became more endemic, that would result in a significant improvement in attendance,” Executive Director of Attendance Works, Hedy Chang, told NPR.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the trend. But since attendance data is only released annually, the number of chronically absent kids in the current academic year is still unknown. While it might not seem like a major problem, students who constantly miss classes risk falling behind. This leads to lower test scores and higher dropout levels.

“Showing up to school makes sure that you have access to resources,” Chang explains. This includes food and nutrition, engaging learning experiences, and access to health care. In public schools outside Baltimore, the volume of chronically absent students has worsened in the last three years. The biggest issue, according to Director of Student Services in Maryland Ryan Voegtlin, is transport.

Voegtlin told NPR that a shortage of bus drivers has made it challenging to cover all the routes and guarantee transport for every child. “That impacts a lot of our higher poverty areas where some of our parents don’t have flexible jobs, where they may not have their own transportation,” he said. Increased concerns over mental health have also led to students becoming chronically absent.

Now, teachers and other education leaders are worried that chronically absent students are losing a sense of belonging in the classroom. “Students have lost connections to peers,” Hedy Chang added via NPR. “They’ve lost connections to adults, and it has certainly been exacerbated by very challenging staffing issues in schools.”

Fortunately, there are a few ways to remedy the chronically absent situation. Home visits are the most effective, as evidenced by the state of Connecticut. The region invested about $10.7 million of its federal relief aid toward the initiative. And six months later, attendance improved by 15 percent. However, these visits must be carried out correctly.

“How you do it matters a lot,” Chang says. To successfully help chronically absent students, home visits require trained staff who can maintain relationships for the entire school year. Attendance counselors and community navigators can also help caregivers to access district resources and provide transport for students with unstable housing.

Additionally, Ryan Voegtlin says reaching out to families before their children become chronically absent can help. He told NPR that his team is currently working to educate caregivers about the long-term implications of missing school. “It’s not a quick process. But it has allowed people to understand that everyone owns attendance, not just when it gets to the chronic point,” he told NPR.