By Aziah Siid

Originally appeared in Word in Black

Are America’s children showing up for school? According to an analysis by Return 2 Learn, a project from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, many are not. 

The project’s researchers analyzed national data on mask-wearing, remote learning, student enrollment, and absenteeism from the U.S. Department of Education, individual school districts and state education agencies, and other sources, like the Stanford Education Data Archive. It then compiled it into a constantly updating and sortable data tracker

What’s of particular concern is that the data reveals districts with the highest population of Black and Brown students had the largest increase in chronic absenteeism.

Nationwide, chronic absenteeism, or “the percentage of students missing at least 10% of a school year,” surged from 15% in 2018 — before the pandemic and remote learning changed the schooling experience of an entire generation.

In 2022, chronic absenteeism soared to 29% nationwide, and the numbers were elevated in communities of color. In high-minority districts, chronic absenteeism grew 15 points — from 17% in 2018 to 32% in 2022. Meanwhile, in low-minority (majority white) districts, the increase was 10 points — from 13% to 23%.

If you enter the name of your local school district in the tracker, it tells you what the chronic absenteeism rate has been for the past several years. You can find out that, for example, in New York City, the largest public school district in the United States, 25% of students were chronically absent in 2018. In 2022, the most recent data year available, 40% were chronically absent. 

Having a quarter of students be chronically absent in 2018 is certainly worrisome — you can’t learn if you’re not in class — but 40% of kids being missing for at least 10% of the school year is a pandemic in and of itself.

In 2020, the year the pandemic struck, chronic absenteeism nationwide fell to 14%, but experts say data from that year in particular is questionable because the pandemic disrupted routine recordkeeping. Chronic absenteeism rose to 19% in 2021, the first full pandemic school year, but data remained questionable given pandemic disruptions.

An Ongoing Pattern of Chronic Absenteeism

This isn’t the first time that the chronic absenteeism of Black students has been put in the spotlight. Over the years, plenty of educators and other researchers have tried to get to the root causes of what keeps kids from showing up to class.

“Chronic absenteeism has been a challenge for years in inner-city schools,” Clara M. McCullough, educator and filmmaker, wrote in an op-ed for the Hechinger Report in February.

“When schools closed their doors and went to remote learning, many students, especially those without reliable internet access, disappeared. When school doors reopened, many students simply did not return, or came back on an inconsistent basis.” 

A 2021 post by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education about data on Black absenteeism in California, the most populous state in the nation, revealed that Black students tend to have more “unexcused” absences than their white peers. Nearly 53% of Black student absences were unexcused, and the researchers noted that they’re typically due to “transportation issues, family concerns such as providing care for younger children so parents can work, safety concerns, truancy, etc.” 

They also “often result in disciplinary actions such as in-school suspensions, which further removes these students from classroom instruction.”

Indeed, as Attendance Works, a national and state initiative that pushes for better attendance policy, previously noted, “often absences are tied to health problems, such as asthma, diabetes, and oral and mental health issues. Other barriers, including lack of a nearby school bus, a safe route to school, or food insecurity, make it difficult to go to school every day.”  

Attendance Works also points out that Kids “living in poverty are two to three times more likely to be chronically absent—and face the most harm because their community lacks the resources to make up for the lost learning in school.” 

This latest is latest analysis from Return 2 Learn also puts poverty in the spotlight. For example, in 2018, 19% of students living in high poverty were chronically absent. By 2022, that had nearly doubled to 36%.

The data also shows that although low-, middle-, and high-achieving school districts — which are typically designated as such according to results on state standardized test scores — all saw an uptick in chronic absenteeism, low-performing school districts were hit the hardest. They saw a 17.2 percentage point increase in chronic absenteeism, compared to the high-performing schools, which only saw a 10.1 percentage point increase. 

How Do We End Chronic Absenteeism?

To fix the problem of chronic absenteeism, Attendance Works suggests “a comprehensive approach that begins with engaging students and families as well as preventing absences from adding up before they fall behind academically.”

The organization also says data — such as what Return 2 Learn has compiled — should be used as “a diagnostic tool to identify where prevention and early intervention are needed.” Attendance Works cautions, however, that folks should “avoid making the incorrect assumption that chronically absent students or their parents simply do not care.” 

The good news is for 2023, chronic absenteeism numbers are down in 19 of 21 states reporting data, but this latest analysis is yet another warning bell on the epidemic of chronic absenteeism, especially amongst Black youth.