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Where Are All the Missing Students?

In 2006, the School District of Philadelphia, in partnership with Microsoft, opened the School of the Future. The idea was simple enough: Establish a learning environment centered on technology—no textbooks, just laptops and Wi-Fi—that would provide students in relatively poor districts the same benefits that those in wealthier areas enjoyed. The district built a handsome, well-lit building and filled it with state-of-the-art trappings including electronic lockers and Italian-marble bathrooms. It was heralded as a path-defining achievement for public-private partnerships in education.

Two years later, Michael Gottfried, now an economist at the University of Pennsylvania but then a graduate student there, was part of a team examining whether such a technological revolution actually made a difference in student achievement. But he soon realized that the technology was somewhat beside the point: “We were talking to a teacher [at the School of the Future] and she said, ‘Here’s the thing, we can talk all you want about smart boards and laptops per student and curriculum moving online, but I have a bigger problem: Half of my class isn’t here.’”

American schools have tracked absenteeism for more than a century; it’s a well-practiced routine. The teacher calls names. The students say, “Here.” Those who don’t respond are marked absent. If too many unexcused absences accumulate, the student is deemed truant. In many school districts, average daily attendance has mostly been seen as a goal tied to school funding; the more students a school has, the more money it receives. But over the past decade, as researchers began to examine the links between being present in class and performance, schools have started to recognize that attendance is a fundamental contributor to academic success. “Every day matters,” Gottfried told me. “After the first day [missed], test scores decline, and it declines in the same way as it does from the eighth or ninth day missed.”

Those academic consequences have left administrators, teachers, and researchers deeply concerned about the glut of students who are missing a significant amount of school since the coronavirus pandemic began. According to an analysis by the Stanford economist Thomas Dee, there was a 91 percent increase in the number of students who became chronically absent—missing more than 10 percent of school days in a year, whether excused or unexcused—between the 2018–19 and 2021–22 school years, which amounts to an estimated 6.5 million students. (After widespread pandemic closures in 2019–20 and 2020–21, almost all schools in America were fully open for the 2021–22 school year.) No state was exempt from the sharp uptick, and groups that researchers were already concerned about—students with disabilities, for example—have had rates of chronic absenteeism nearing 40 percent. “Students from risk groups were already engaging in high levels of absences before the pandemic, and those have just gone through the roof,” Gottfried told me.

There are several reasons a student might miss class, some of which cleanly map onto challenges that the pandemic exacerbated. Students may be ill, for instance; in the early grades, their parents may consider school an extension of day care and not worry about the amount of class time the student is missing; or, in later grades, the students themselves may not find the material engaging—which may be more likely to be the case if, during the pandemic, they missed out on education that their current coursework is intended to build on.

But as Sarah Lenhoff, an education-policy professor at Wayne State University, in Michigan, explained to me, “The strongest correlate with chronic absence is child poverty and family poverty. The fewer resources a family has, the more likely they are to be absent.” There are layers to that, Lenhoff said, beyond the fact that “they just don’t have as much money.” Poverty often means that students don’t have access to reliable transportation—which is crucial when many districts face severe bus-driver shortages, if students have access to school buses at all. Many impoverished families also don’t have a well-resourced support network to assist them if they are evicted from their homes, or if they have an unexpected work conflict. On top of that, “children who are poor tend to have worse health outcomes, and their families have less access to health care, so they’re more likely to miss school because of that,” she said. Often, Lenhoff told me, those attendant factors related to poverty are misidentified as the parents not wanting to send their children to school.

Although the pandemic-era child tax credit, which cut child poverty in half, might have been expected to produce a drop in absenteeism rather than a spike, researchers have not yet studied how the tax credit affected school attendance, and because of the confounding factors related to the pandemic, any direct relationship will almost certainly be difficult to ascertain. For instance, though child poverty was reduced, students at the bottom of the economic spectrum were still more susceptible to the coronavirus; consistent housing is important for attendance, but financial pressures and other upheavals led many families to move during the pandemic, displacing students from their schools. Additionally, rolling school closures meant that students missed a significant amount of classroom time—which could have caused them to become disengaged from school.

Unfortunately, getting students back into the classroom consistently is not an easy task. Research has shown that most efforts to combat chronic absence have only modest effects on student attendance. In New York City, for example, researchers examined whether students receiving universal free meals attended school more frequently, and found that, if all other things were equal, students who received free meals attended an average of 1.8 more days of school than their peers who did not.

Several researchers agreed that the best way to get students back in school is by building strong relationships with families and students. “It’s really important that it’s a two-way communication and that families are able to talk to the school about what’s keeping them from school, the barriers they’re facing,” Lenhoff told me. From there, the school can put in place a plan to get students into classrooms one by one—but such individualized attention is difficult to imagine when the scale of the problem is so large, and the resources to meet it are so few.

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