Chronic absenteeism a problem for Clark, Champaign schools

Springfield City’s chronic absentee rate last school year was about 57.5%

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Chronic absenteeism greatly increased in area districts last school year and remains a problem this year as schools enter the third year of the pandemic.

Statewide, the Ohio Department of Education calculated the chronic absenteeism rate jumped to 24% in 2020-2021, the most recent school year for which there is data. That’s up from 11% in 2019-2020. In 2018-2019, the school year prior to the beginning of the pandemic, Ohio’s chronic absentee rate was 17%, according to ODE.

Chronic absenteeism is defined by the Ohio Department of Education as any student missing at least 10% of school days for any reason.

Schools that saw increases in chronic absenteeism cited students ill from COVID-19 as part of the issue, but some districts also had students sick from other factors and staff shortages that caused some classes or schools to cancel.

The increase in chronic absenteeism comes as schools are already worried about learning loss after the pandemic forced districts into virtual learning in March 2020. Some schools didn’t return to in-person learning until after vaccines were widely available last spring.

According to an Ohio State University study from August 2021, Ohio students who attended virtual school in the 2020 school year missed the equivalent of a half to a full year in math, and between one-third and one-half of a year in language arts, depending on the grade level. The study looked at the results of state-mandated testing.

On average across several county public and private schools that report their absentee data to the state, the chronic absentee rate was even higher than the state average: 27% in 2020-2021; 18% in 2019-2020 and 25% in 2018-2019. Officials are worried this year’s trends might be similar, though data hasn’t been published yet.

This means students are not learning or getting the services they need, said Cherie Moore, Springfield City Schools Communications Director.

“As we look at the whole child, being absent from school is definitely a concern. If students are not in school, they are not learning,” she said. “Time at school, for many of our students, is where they receive nutrition, warmth, and a safe environment. When not in school, students are not able to get mental health services or other services that were chosen to (help) them succeed.”

Suburban schools

Suburban public-school districts generally have lower rates of chronic absenteeism. But some of those schools, including Northeastern, Graham and Triad, saw increases in their chronic absenteeism rates, according to state data analyzed by the Springfield News-Sun.

In Northeastern, the chronic absentee rate jumped from 7.3% in 2019-20 to 12.5% in the 2020-21 school year. Graham saw an increase from 5.5% in 2019-20 to 12.1% in 2020-21, while Triad saw an even greater jump from 9.1% in 2019-20 to 23.8% in 2020-21.

All three districts had chronic absentee rates between 8% and 12% between the 2017-18 school year and 2018-19 school year, according to ODE data.

Northeastern, Graham and Triad all cited COVID-19 illnesses and exposed students quarantining as the primary factor for the absences.

Northeastern Local School Superintendent John Kronour cited not only COVID-19 as the reason, but also staff shortages and other sicknesses.

“COVID has been a huge factor in attendance during the 2021-22 school year. (The district) has been in an in-person learning environment except for a few days where some buildings were virtual because of an increase of positive COVID-19 cases and quarantines, in addition to staff shortages and students sent home sick,” he said.

When students are not in class, Kronour said they miss out on a lot of different things.

“They miss out on the material taught, the questions asked by their peers, and hands-on learning in the classroom. They also miss our on the social-emotional benefits of an in-person learning experience,” he said.

Kronour added that the biggest different between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school year is the learning method. He said the district transitioned from hybrid learning to in-person learning during the 2020-21 year and have been in full in-person learning since then.

“This year, we have been in an in-person learning environment versus last year when there were 700 completely virtual students, with the rest of our student population in a hybrid learning environment,” he said.

Triad Local Schools also saw nearly a 15% increase from 2019-20 to 2020-21. Superintendent Vickie Hoffman said COVID-19 is the main reason for the change in absenteeism.

“We have had two points in the year where we had a lot of students out due to COVID. I would say that our numbers will be similar again this year,” she said.

Hoffman said before COVID the district awarded students for perfect attendance but haven’t been able to do that for the past two years. Although this is not an incentive to send sick kids to school, she said the district will return to doing this to help keep kids in school once the pandemic slows down.

“Face-to-face instruction is the most effective form of instruction available. When students are absent, they miss important information and have to make up work,” she said.

Graham Local Schools saw increased chronic absentee rates, though less than Northeastern and Triad.

Graham’s rate was 10.3% in 2018-19, then dropped in 2019-20 to 5.5%. But that rose to 12.1% in 2020-21.

Chad Lensman, director of teaching and learning, said COVID was a major reason for increased absences, as well as many students wanting to continue online learning but were not able to keep up with the demands of that type of learning environment.

“The shutdown in March of 2020 was not conducive to ensuring student attendance at school,” he said. “Virtual learning provided challenges in tracking student attendance during the 2020-21 school year… The tracking added an increased workload on school administrators and teachers across the district.”

Absences trends are improving during the 2021-22 school year and the district has procedures in place to help maintain attendance.

Lensman added that students are more likely to be successful in school when working with teachers on a day-to-day basis.

“Learning builds from lesson to lesson, so when students are out of the classroom, they are missing important instruction delivered by the classroom teacher. We have a high-quality teaching staff that works to meet the needs of students, regardless of when they are in the classroom, but it is much more beneficial to be in the classroom on a consistent basis,” he said.

Springfield City

Springfield City’s chronic absentee rate last school year was about 57.5%, higher than any other area public school. Dayton was a close second at 53%.

According to ODE’s data, Black students, Hispanic students, economically disadvantage students and English as a second language students were significantly more at-risk for chronic absenteeism. Black students’ chronic absentee rate last school year across the state was 47%, according to ODE.

Absences in the 2020-21 school year were affected by COVID-19 exposure, quarantines, and positive test results. Moore said they were also incorrectly inflated due to an internal reporting error that has since been adjusted to show correct numbers for the 2021-22 school year.

The district “aggressively” quarantined COVID-related student exposures and possible exposures throughout the pandemic, but quarantined students were able to work virtually from home by logging into Google classroom for attendance tracking purposes.

Student absenteeism continues to be higher than normal for the 2021-22 school year due to the pandemic, Moore said, but the district is working to address the issue.

“The (district) doubled the number of attendance staff in the district, as well as added a part-time secretary at each school building to assist in the tracking of absences,” she said.

Moore said the attendance team checks in on students, keeps an open dialogue with parents, performs home visits to encourage the student to come back to school, works with the juvenile court to engage families, and continues to focus on students through the social emotional learning platform.

“Everyone takes their role in helping our students succeed very seriously. Parents are a vital part of student success, and we value their input. Community partners are essential to our district as well,” she said.