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Study finds the school absenteeism rate is double what it was before COVID

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back here in the U.S, about 1 in 3 kids is not in school as often as they are supposed to be. Chronic absenteeism peaked in the COVID pandemic, but now, almost two years into the return to in-person learning, schools are still struggling to get kids to show up. Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting has more.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: It's the first cool day of fall in Macon, Ga., and Principal Kizzie Lott is in a floppy green poncho and baby blue rubber boots...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN GIGGLING)

BLANKENSHIP: ...So students can dump water on her head.

KIZZIE LOTT: Let's get your bucket.

BLANKENSHIP: You only get a bucket if you've been regularly coming to school. And by now, Lott is wet.

LOTT: You ready? The poncho does nothing.

BLANKENSHIP: This is fun. But in truth, it's a kind of soft diplomacy. There's a message Lott needs these kids to take home today to their grown-ups and their friends who missed school.

LOTT: School attendance matters, especially in our early grades.

BLANKENSHIP: That's Lott drying off in a conference room in her school, Bruce Elementary. She says caregivers of little kids might think...

LOTT: Oh, they're just playing all day. But no, that's where the foundation of reading and the foundations of mathematical skills begins.

BLANKENSHIP: Students missing enough instruction to threaten those foundations was already a problem for Lott's school before COVID. COVID supercharged absenteeism at her school. That was true for the surrounding county school district, and, says Stanford University researcher Thomas De, it was true for the nation. Dee studies the economics of education, including chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10% of potential school time. So a month into school, that's two days. Over a school year, that's, like, 18 days. Dee says a lot of kids fall into this category.

THOMAS DEE: Prior to the pandemic, it hovered around 15%, which was already considered too high.

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

DEE: My sense was that people were ready to get back to normal, so I'll confess I was surprised by the really sharp rise in chronic absenteeism.

BLANKENSHIP: What he found and describes 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, quote, "back to normal." What he's unsure of is why. He found no correlation to community COVID infections.

DEE: Or whether a state either adopted a masking mandate during that return to schooling or banned masking mandates. It was such a broad phenomenon.

BLANKENSHIP: Preliminary data indicates the level of chronic absenteeism, which surprise Dee in 2022, persisted in Georgia in 2023, the second post-pandemic school year. And Georgia generally tracks the national average for chronic absenteeism. Back in Macon, Principal Kizzie Lott's school district knows their 2023 rate was higher than the previous year. Lott has a few guesses why.

LOTT: Homelessness is real. Financial struggles that may affect utilities - that is real. Things are happening within families, whether it's illness, it's death. Those things are real-life things that affect a child's attendance.

BLANKENSHIP: Things tied to poverty. That's why Lott's staff checks in with caregivers after a child's first absence to ask, how can we make it easy to get to school? Sometimes there's no cooperation. In that case, there's court because Georgia has a law mandating school attendance. Kristin Murphy is a local prosecutor who handles absenteeism cases. She says they rarely end in conviction.

KRISTIN MURPHY: At the end of the day, the most important thing is the kids being in school.

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

MURPHY: 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.

BLANKENSHIP: This kind of deal-making typically takes about a year to complete, a year in which kids will have missed school. At Bruce Elementary, Principal Kizzie Lott would really rather not use courts to get her students where they need to be.

LOTT: All right, you ready? We got to get up high - higher, higher.

BLANKENSHIP: So she's planning more fun things to encourage them to come to school.

For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Macon, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Grant came to public media after a career spent in newspaper photojournalism. As an all platform journalist he seeks to wed the values of public radio storytelling and the best of photojournalism online.