Nearly four years into America’s learning-loss crisis, perhaps the biggest challenge facing the country’s schools is a basic one: getting students to show up. Rates of absenteeism have surged since the start of the pandemic, across nearly all regions, income levels and age groups. School leaders need to act now to solve the problem – or risk seeing millions of students lose any chance of recovery.

By every measure, U.S. students are missing huge amounts of school. During the 2021-22 academic year, 28% of schoolchildren were “chronically” absent – defined as missing at least 10% of the 180-day school year, or 3½ weeks. Monkeybusinessimages/Dreamstime/TNS

By every measure, U.S. students are missing huge amounts of school. During the 2021-22 academic year, 28% of schoolchildren were “chronically” absent – defined as missing at least 10% of the 180-day school year, or 3 1/2 weeks. That’s up from a rate of 15% in the last full year before the pandemic. The problem is most acute in urban public school districts: Chronic absenteeism topped 40% in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago; in Detroit, the rate was 77%. But even affluent, suburban areas have seen unexcused absences soar.

It hardly needs saying that the impact on kids can be devastating. Being chronically absent increases students’ likelihood of dropping out of high school, reduces their lifetime earnings and makes them more prone to commit crimes. It’s also behind the historic plunge in test scores since the start of the pandemic. An analysis by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers found that absenteeism was responsible for 27% of the drop in fourth-grade math scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress and 45% of the decline in reading.

Several related factors have contributed to this crisis. The advent of remote learning during the pandemic altered students’ routines and led many to conclude that in-person attendance was optional. School districts have eased grading policies that penalized students for missing class or turning assignments in late, further reducing incentives to attend. After years of COVID quarantines, parents are more inclined to keep kids home for minor illnesses or mental health issues. Technology isn’t helping: There’s evidence that absenteeism had already begun rising in the years before the pandemic, coinciding with the explosion of smartphone and social media use among children – which increased distractions and weakened students’ connection to school. Those problems only worsened while schools and other activities were shut down.

Reversing these trends will require school districts to employ a range of strategies. Their top priority should be identifying families with chronically absent students, informing parents about the long-term consequences of missing school, and following with up with phone calls, text messages and home visits from school staff or social workers if the problem persists. Pandemic-era health guidelines should be revised so that students aren’t kept home for relatively innocuous coughs and colds. Meanwhile, accountability should be toughened: Schools should impose stricter limits on the number of assignments that can be submitted online and make attendance a bigger portion of students’ grades. They should limit repeat offenders’ participation in non-academic activities, including sports, and require tutoring and summer school for those who miss substantial amounts of time.

For its part, the federal government should increase grants to states to promote anti-absenteeism policies and reward those that show sustained results. Experiments to boost attendance and student performance by pushing back start times, as California is doing, should be evaluated for effectiveness. Expanding merit-based pay for teachers and boosting incentives for top teachers to teach in poorly performing classrooms is also critical: Research shows that teachers who’ve been successful in raising student achievement are also more likely to motivate them to show up for class.

Above all, the absenteeism crisis demands a greater sense of urgency. With the looming expiration of $190 billion in federal pandemic aid, many districts face a funding shortfall that threatens to limit future efforts to combat learning loss. If the U.S. hopes to prevent permanent damage to a generation of students, the first task is getting them back into the classroom.

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