Flagging student attendance in high school has always been an issue. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education released a study on chronic absenteeism. The study found that one in five high school students are chronically absent, meaning that the student is attending less than 80% of their classes. In addition, those rates are increasing post pandemic. Students, staff and faculty alike worry about what this could mean for on-track learning, graduation rates and students’ mental health. Many attribute the issue to the shifted expectations of school during pandemic and distance learning.
“Attendance has been awful,” South Assistant Principal Riannon Boettcher said.
“The only other time in my career I have seen it this bad was in 2010, when there was a really bad flu and many students were at home sick. But, this year, it cannot be fully attributed to students being sick. There is a lot more to it than that, making it very widely spread.”
Between the shift back to in-person learning and the external challenges associated with it following a year away from the building, many students have been struggling.
“We are having many students be absent for more than 10 consecutive days and become unenrolled,” South social studies teacher Anna Grace said. “Typically, for that to happen more than once a year would be startling, but it has happened a lot this year.”
Grace is not the only teacher noticing attendance issues.
“During first trimester, attendance was very low,” South math teacher Elizabeth Day said, “but I mostly attributed that to outbreaks of COVID and students needing to quarantine. I started to see some improvements [in attendance] during second term. However, recently it has really dropped off the cliff. I’ve regularly had eight or nine students with unexcused absences in classes that are supposed to have a [about] 30 students.”
District 4J is seeing these kinds of numbers across the board. The percentage of students who were chronically absent from high school, meaning an attendance rate of 80 percent or lower (average of one absence per week) was 4 percent pre-pandemic. Now, 4j’s chronic absenteeism rate has spiked to more than five times pre-pandemic rates to 21 percent.
“Although these numbers are shocking,” South’s school psychologist, Barb Keyworth said, “the way we deliver our educational services has changed. With Canvas, many students are able to be out of the building and achieve the same grades they would while being in person.”
Unfortunately, however, that is not the case for all students. Keyworth explains that for many students, going on campus after quarantine has become difficult for many reasons. Some students struggle with anxiety, worsened mental health, or students having new responsibilities, such as being a daycare provider for a younger sibling.
“With the systems we have established throughout COVID of not having due dates and things like that, a lot of the original motivators that used to be there for people are no longer there,” Grace added.
But even though Canvas and flexible academic expectations may allow students to pass classes independently, there are critical social and collaborative aspects students may miss out on when they aren’t physically in the classroom.
“These numbers are so concerning,” Keyworth said, “because coming onto campus is essential for emotional growth. Mandating student attendance is not only beneficial for students' education, but also for students to continue to learn how to work and interact in a social setting.
Others agreed that easing back into the communal aspects of pre-pandemic schooling was best for students.
“Education is a human connection endeavor,” Assistant Principal Boettcher said. “Collaborating with peers is essential for students' growth and you cannot do that at home on a computer.”
The drastic switch students made this year back to in-person learning has been a significant adjustment for everyone; many are still struggling with the shift. Students who got used to the self-paced aspect of online learning might be wary of the value of comping on campus. Distance-learning seemed, by definition, to diminish the importance of attendance and to emphasize the importance of class content, making time in class feel almost like an afterthought, or like an option only necessary for extra instructional support.
Right now, students may be struggling to attend classes for reasons that have nothing to do with school or for reasons related to their mental health. Anecdotal evidence shows that social anxiety, for example, may be more common after the isolation of pandemic. This year has been a massive change for everyone; going from distance-learning during part of a day at home back into a full eight hours of class with 1,500 students and staff in one building has been a shock. It will take more than a year for everyone to readjust to a learning environment that used to be considered normal.