Chronic absenteeism

Alan Cai

March 29, 2024

Four years since the first schools closed down at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, its lingering effects on the American education system continue to loom over classroom environments. Chronic absenteeism, roughly defined as an educational condition of being absent for more than 10% of a given school year, has taken a heavy toll on primary and secondary educational institutions across the country.

Policy Analysis for California Education found that during the 2020-2021 school year, only 14% of students were labeled as chronically absent, a relatively insignificant increase from the 12% mark of the last full pre-COVID year of 2018-2019. However, during the 2021-2022 school year, the year when most school districts fully resumed in-person instruction, chronic absenteeism applied to approximately 30% of students. While the spike has largely leveled off, the past two years have still seen a consistent chronic absenteeism figure double that of normal pre-pandemic levels.

The spike in chronic absenteeism in schools is undoubtedly linked to pandemic-induced distance learning and flexible education schedules. The Zoom-school era not only allowed students to enjoy relaxed attendance requirements, but it also inadvertently set the precedent that education itself was an intrinsically optional excursion that could be malleable based on the circumstances rather than the fundamentally necessary activity it truly was. Thus, once normal schooling resumed, it should have come as no surprise that those who were accustomed to waking up minutes before the first class or acquainted with attending school from the comfort of their beds had difficulty adjusting back.

Pandemic-era habits and mentalities are only partly to blame for the sharp decline in students’ willingness to attend school. The well-documented educational inequalities and across-the-board academic declines experienced by students around the nation have set many students far behind educational requirements and standards, even falling behind their peers. Such students are disincentivized to attend school and turn to skipping school, forcing them to fall even more behind in academics. The extremely high rate of absenteeism can affect students who are not missing school as well, due to the additional classroom instruction time necessary to catch absent students back to speed.

The solution to chronic absenteeism in the primary and secondary education systems of America is still unclear. Other than the current mandates and incentives already in place, there are few obvious solutions school districts can implement to engender more school attendance. Nevertheless, Americans must revisit and reemphasize the value of education for the development of our youth; especially in the growing and rapidly developing world of artificial intelligence.