After the pandemic, too many kids are still missing school

education icon with silhouette of teach in front of class, holding a baton to a board.

by Grant Blankenship, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

October 3, 2023

On the first cool day of fall in Macon, Bruce Elementary Principal Kizzie Lott walked out the back door of her school in a floppy green poncho and baby blue rubber boots.

Then, sitting in a plastic chair, she faced about 20 of her students who each had their own red bucket of water. Then, she gamely endured the dumping of that water directly on her head.

“You say the poncho does nothing?” a teacher asked Lott about midway through the drenching.

“The poncho does nothing,” came the reply.

The students doing the dumping were chosen at random from a larger group deemed to have had stellar attendance records at this point about a quarter of the way into the school year at Bruce Elementary School.

The younger students seemed a bit confused. Some of the older students clearly enjoyed themselves. They all screamed during the ultimate inversion of the social order: a teacher had a go at soaking the principal, too.

It was all meant in fun, but in truth it was a kind of soft diplomacy. There was a message Lott shouted, which she needed the kids to take home to their grownups, their friends who missed school and which the students back in class who missed too much school to compete for a chance to soak the principal watched via livestream.

“School Attendance Matters!”

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% of any of the school days you could have attended. So a few weeks into a school year that could mean two days. Over a whole school year it could mean 18.

Lott was driven to don her poncho and boots by her conviction that chronic absenteeism hurts students.

“Especially in our early grades — because we know that sometimes we don’t understand the importance of kindergarten,” Lott said.

Lott said caregivers often think anything before first grade is just playtime for their children.

“But no, that’s where the foundation of reading and the foundations of mathematical skills begins,” Lott said.

Students missing enough instruction to threaten those foundations was already a problem for Lott’s school before COVID. The problem was supercharged during the pandemic when students bounced from in-person learning to “remote learning” at home to in-person instruction again in the Bibb County School District.

Stanford University researcher Thomas Dee said kids fell off the radar of school systems across the country during COVID.  Dee studies the economics of education, including chronic absenteeism.

“Prior to the pandemic, it hovered around 15%, which was already considered too high,” he said.

That was 1 in 7 U.S. students in 2018. In Georgia, the rate was slightly lower.

The last good federal statistics on chronic absenteeism date to 2015. So Dee went state to state, collecting his own attendance data for the school year ending in 2022 as well, the first year when kids were back in classrooms

“My sense was that people were ready to get back to normal,” Dee said. He expected the chronic absenteeism numbers to reflect that, to look like 2018.

“So I’ll confess, I was surprised by the really sharp rise in chronic absenteeism,” he said.

What he found and described in a study published in August was a doubling of the pre-COVID absenteeism rate, across the country in districts both urban and rural. That means nearly 1 in 3 students missed too much school even when things were “back to normal.”

That pattern held for Georgia, too, where a quarter of students were chronically absent in 2022. The state’s rate was even higher than in the heat of the pandemic in 2021.

What Dee is unsure of is why. Multiple possible reasons exist, such as:

“Whether a state either adopted a masking mandate during return to school or banned mask mandates,” he said. “It was such a broad phenomenon.”

Dee added that whatever root causes educators land on, they will soon have fewer resources with which to tackle them.

“The federal government gave public schools a major infusion of around $200 million,” Dee said. “Those resources are set to sunset over the next year. And so the capacity of schools to address these problems is going to be limited in the near future.”

The highest levels of absenteeism among individual Georgia schools were seen in Atlanta. For example, one high school saw 87% of its students missing too much instruction.

But when looking at averages across entire school systems, the issue skewed decidedly rural. Absenteeism topped 40% in a list of rural districts including but not limited to Evans, Dooly and Calhoun counties.

Preliminary data indicates the level of chronic absenteeism which surprised Dee in 2022 persisted nationally and, again, in Georgia in 2023, the second post-pandemic school year. Georgia will not release its final 2023 attendance data until December.

But in data provided to the Macon Newsroom by the Bibb County School District, the increase in chronic absenteeism was larger in Bibb County between the first two post-pandemic years than between the pre-COVID era and the return to normal schooling.

Principal Lott had a few guesses why.

“Homelessness is real;  financial struggles that may affect utilities, that is real,” she said. “Things are happening within families, whether it’s illness, it’s death, those things are real life things that affect a child’s attendance.”

And they broadly fall into two columns: poverty and mental health.

That’s why Lott’s counselors check in with caregivers after a child’s first absence to ask: How can we make it easy to get to school? If the school can’t find a solution, the district’s truancy task force composed of social service providers tries to work it out.

Sometimes, rarely, there’s a lack of cooperation that sends the case to court. Georgia has a law mandating school attendance for children between 6 and 16.  Kristen Murphy is an assistant solicitor-general who handles absenteeism cases. She says they rarely end in conviction.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is the kids being in school,” she said.

If caregivers can make that happen, Murphy tells them they don’t have to see a judge.

So that there’s that carrot dangling in front of them that ‘I’m not going to get prosecuted if I bring my kids to school.’” she said.

This kind of dealmaking typically takes about a year to complete.

Lott really would rather not use courts to get her students where they need to be. So she’s planning the next fun thing to tie to school attendance, to keep it top of mind.

“Little kids’ attention span isn’t that long,” she said. “And so we’re working to do these things to prick the heart of the kid. But we also have to think about the parent, too.”

Because, Lott said, her kids can’t wake themselves up and get themselves to school.

This story was first published by Georgia Public Broadcasting, a Georgia Recorder news partner.

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