Two-thirds of the nation’s schools faced severe chronic absenteeism in 2021-22, with no sign of a major rebound in the following year, according to authors of a report released Thursday.

Before the pandemic, 25% of schools witnessed a “high” or “extreme” level of students repeatedly missing from their classes, but that number more than doubled to an unprecedented 66% during the first year of full in-person learning nationwide, the analysis said.

The implications are serious: Rampant absenteeism often hampers teaching and learning. Teachers must scramble to help students make up lessons they missed while still keeping others on track. Students often become disconnected from school.

Research shows that the spike in absenteeism is linked to marked drops in student test scores.

“This is a dire and urgent situation because if we want our kids to learn and to recover from a very traumatic multiple years of disrupted learning, we have to reestablish a routine of attendance,” said Hedy Chang, a co-author of the work and executive director of the national nonprofit Attendance Works.

The analysis, based on federal data and conducted with researchers at Johns Hopkins University, shows the number of chronically absent students jumped about 80% – to 14.7 million in 2021-22, increasing by 6.5 million over three years. Students are considered chronically absent when they are out of school for at least 18 days, or 10%, of a school year.


Why students miss so much school is complex. For teenagers, it could be that they found jobs during the pandemic and are continuing to work as they attend classes, said Robert Balfanz, a co-author of the analysis and professor of education at Johns Hopkins.

It also may be a mental health issue, he said. More than 40% of students reported in federal surveys that they were so sad or hopeless in 2021 that they stopped their regular activities. And researchers estimate hundreds of thousands of students lost parents or grandparents during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Balfanz also said he is optimistic that, over time, schools will see a rebound.

Schools unaccustomed to so much absenteeism might have floundered, the authors said. “It takes a little bit of time to get mobilized to sort of push against it,” said Balfanz, who is director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins.

Only 7% of elementary schools had extreme levels of chronic absenteeism in 2017-18, compared to 38% in 2021-22. For middle schools, the jump was from 8% to 40%; high school rates soared from 31% to 56%.

A school is considered to have reached a “high” level of chronic absenteeism if 20 to 29% of its students have reached that marker. When 30% of students or more are chronically absent, the school falls into the “extreme” category.


Bebi Davis, vice principal at a middle school in Honolulu, said chronic absenteeism jumped from about 7% or under before the pandemic to almost 26% in 2021-22 – and fell only slightly, to about 24%, in 2022-23.

To help bring kids back, the school has relied on an array of strategies – one-on-one discussions with students, home visits, family meetings, a rewards program, and a “wellness hour” after school for reflection and sussing out solutions.

“It’s not an easy thing,” Davis said. “We have to get creative,” Davis said she finds heart-to-heart talks are most powerful – and does not take a blaming approach.

Experts say that there are multiple strategies for tackling the problem but that searching for the root cause is critical. Sometimes, it may be a matter of transportation or other basics.

When so many students are absent, a systemic approach is needed in schools, with a schoolwide plan that is built into the structure, said Chang.

The 2021-22 school year was the first full return to in-person learning for many school districts. But that year was marred by COVID surges and quarantines in many places – keeping some students out of classes for extended periods.


But early data from 2022-23 was not promising: An analysis of 11 states showed a tiny overall drop, from 30% to 28%, still well above pre-pandemic norms.

Timothy Ray, an assistant principal at Charles Page High School, in the suburbs of Tulsa, Okla., said that amid pandemic quarantines, students became used to a blended form of learning – some of it in school, some at home – and ultimately the lack of structure at home was not always good for attendance.

This year, he said, he see signs of normalcy. “If they’re on-site, they learn a lot more, and they’re a lot more successful academically,” he said.

Other research on absenteeism has reached similar conclusions. A recent study written by Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford University, pulled together state data, calculating a 91% increase in chronic absenteeism from 2018-19 to 2021-22. He found that several widely discussed factors did not drive the state-level surge, including school enrollment losses, COVID-19 case rates, and school masking policies.

“This really matters because we know showing up is important for learning,” he said. “But it also adds another serious challenge to our efforts at academic recovery.” Programs like tutoring, summer school and extended hours of instruction depend on attendance. Without consistency, he said, “those supports aren’t going to be as effective as we’d like them to be.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: