Chronic absenteeism has increased in Portland public schools since the onset of the pandemic, according to a report released by the district last week.

Rates of chronic absenteeism – missing at least 10 percent of school days in one year – rose significantly between the 2017-18 and 2021-22 school years. In 2017-18, around 19 percent of Portland students across all grades were chronically absent. Last school year, that number was 24.4 percent.

Chronic absenteeism has long been a problem nationwide, but it became worse during the pandemic and many are worried that spells trouble for students who have already faced years of COVID-related learning disruptions.

Simply put, students do better and are more prepared for college and careers if they go to school, experts say.

“There is strong evidence that being in school on a regular basis really matters,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. “Students who are chronically absent are much more likely to have lower achievement, fail more classes, and ultimately not graduate from high school. It also can undermine a student’s sense of belonging and connection to school.”

The issue is consistent across the state and the country. School districts similar to Portland in demographics and size, including Bangor, Lewiston, South Portland and Westbrook, saw similar or greater rises in chronic absenteeism compared to Portland between the 2017-18 and 2020-21 school years, the latest year for which state data is available. Average statewide chronic absenteeism increased from about 17 to 21 percent over that time period.


Nationally, more than 70 percent of schools saw increases in chronic absenteeism over the course of the pandemic, according to a U.S. Department of Education report released in July.

Chronic absenteeism affects all students, but data and research show it most severely impacts low-income students, English language learners and students with disabilities – students who often most need the extra support that schools can provide and don’t have the resources to make up for lost classroom time.

In Portland during the 2021-22 school year, economically disadvantage students, those with academic disabilities, English language learners and students from most minority groups suffered more from learning loss compared to their counterparts, according to the report, with some variation across grade levels.

The issue is already troubling, but some believe the problem may be more severe than the data shows because it was hard to track and measure during the confusion of remote and hybrid learning that occurred over the past few years.

For example, the Portland school district reported a dip in chronic absenteeism during the 2019-2020 school year but said that data should be “interpreted with caution since there were different practices for taking remote attendance.”



There’s no one cause for chronic absenteeism. Some students could stay home because they’re being bullied, because of substance abuse or mental health issues, because they are anxious about going to school or because they don’t understand the material, feel welcome or feel like school is important. Other students could need to care for younger siblings or other family members, need to work to support their families or not be able to access transportation to get to school.

The variability in reasons for absenteeism means there isn’t a silver bullet to the solve problem. However, there are some tactics that are working well to get students back in classrooms.

Using data to understand what groups of students are struggling with chronic absenteeism and why may lead to solutions. Intervening early when students seem to be struggling, working with community resources to provide wraparound services and developing strong relationships with parents early in the school year have all proven to be successful, said Jessica Anderson, executive director of Count ME In, a Maine nonprofit that works to increase student attendance.

With the worst of the pandemic behind them, educators across the state are using a variety of tactics to pull kids back into school, including some promoted by Anderson.

The Portland school district, for example, is prioritizing collecting data on chronic absenteeism and ensuring all students are meaningfully engaged with a caring adult in their school.

The Bonny Eagle school district is trying to provide more flexibility by offering some students a five-year high school graduation track. The district is also testing out allowing some eighth and ninth graders to attend school on a hybrid schedule.

Other school districts are providing flexibility in other ways or knocking on students’ doors to encourage them to return to school.

Lenny Holmes, director of alternative education at Bonny Eagle and chair of the state’s Truancy Dropout and Alternative Education advisory committee, said the pandemic taught educators that kids are not all the same.

“A one-size-fits-all approach to school doesn’t work,” he said.

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