American pupils have missed too much school since the pandemic

Absenteeism was a problem long before covid, but the disruption made things far worse. (AP)
Absenteeism was a problem long before covid, but the disruption made things far worse. (AP)


Thousands of children disappeared from the rolls. Fortunately, a few schools seem to have worked out how to coax some of their pupils back to their desks.

Many families with children were clamouring to get back to in-person learning during the covid-19 pandemic. But many pupils were less eager to do so, and some still have yet to properly return. Thousands of children disappeared from the rolls. Fortunately, a few schools seem to have worked out how to coax some of their pupils back to their desks.

Absenteeism was a problem long before covid, but the disruption made things far worse. According to a study from Stanford University, more than a quarter of all American pupils in the 2021-22 school year missed at least three and a half weeks of school—almost double the pre-pandemic rate. Every one of the 40 states in the study saw an increase in absenteeism after 2018-19, the last full academic year before the pandemic. The worst rates, and some of the biggest rises, were in Alaska and New Mexico (while Alabama and New Jersey were best in class).

A few states punish families for truancy. Parents can be fined or charged with civil or criminal offences. Pupils can find themselves in juvenile custody. Other states do not allow such punitive measures, so schools are limited in how they can respond. But some studies show that punishments do not seem to work.

“These things are more complicated than parents and kids being lazy," says Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, an advocacy group. Several districts have hired absenteeism officers—friendlier versions of truancy officers—to knock on parents’ doors. But many of the parents who fail to send their children to school today are the struggling pupils of the previous generation, says Ms Rodrigues. School was not a positive experience for them, so teachers need to persuade parents that classes are worth attending.

One way is through better instruction. A different Stanford study found that high-impact tutoring, defined as 90 minutes a week of small-group instruction, is projected to improve attendance in some schools in the District of Columbia by two to three days in the year. Yet plenty of schools need to improve by much more than that. Take Manzano High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico: in 2021-22, 63% of pupils were chronically absent (meaning they missed 10% or more of the school year).

To tackle the problem, administrators at Manzano went into partnership with the GRAD Partnership for Student Success, a collaborative effort between several non-profit organisations and universities. In 2022-23 the school’s chronic-absenteeism rate dropped to 45%. For the current school year, which ends on May 31st, administrators expect that the figure will drop further, to nearly one-third. Though the data do not prove a causal link, school leaders are confident that the new programme is driving the results.

The policy focuses on two key components: data and relationships. First, school leaders must know who is struggling, as indicated by pupils’ absences, grades and other criteria. Many schools do not have reliable data, and if they do have the information, they are not analysing it to identify trends and the troubled.

The second part involves relationship-building with families. For some, this means getting help with immediate needs. The school hosted a resource fair where families were able to learn about federal programmes that provide housing and food. It also connected parents with potential employers, faith-based services and other local resources.

A dedicated counsellor, Jeanie Stark, identifies pupils in need of support. “I was so scared," says Zeth Wilkinson, a senior, recounting the moment two years ago when Ms Stark called his family about his absences and poor grades. He remembers being terrified of Ms Stark. He says his parents were furious about the call—they were not aware that he was struggling.

Once pupils are identified, Ms Stark works with their families to improve the child’s performance. Sometimes there are easy fixes. Two years ago David Hurtado just needed his texts in Spanish. Since receiving those books, transferring out of one troublesome elective course and meeting Ms Stark regularly, his grades have improved. David is set to graduate this month, and he will be the first in his family to earn his high-school diploma.

The GRAD Partnership programme is multifaceted, but its message is simple: relationships matter. “When you feel more connected to school, you come more often and you do better," says Bob Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Centre at Johns Hopkins University, the lead organisation within the GRAD Partnership.

Zeth Wilkinson’s opinion of the programme has changed since that initial anxiety-ridden call. He now meets with Ms Stark regularly. He has got involved with drama, and his grades have improved. He too is about to graduate this month, a big accomplishment since neither of his birth parents graduated from high school. “It’s crazy that one simple check-in can go so far," Zeth says. Without Ms Stark, “I would be so lost."

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