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The pandemic ended, but nearly 2 million California students were still chronically absent

Skyline High School is tucked away in the Oakland hills, and physically getting students to the school has long been a challenge. But today — three years since the onset of the pandemic — the problem with attendance has gotten more complex.

“We spent 12 years getting kids ready … (for working) a nine-to-five day, basically,” said Eric Shapiro, Skyline’s community schools manager, describing the pre-COVID pattern. “But you break people out of that, and you’re seeing it with adults too — we’re having such a hard time going back to work and adjusting to that whole mode.”

Skyline is far from an outlier. A new analysis has found that one in four students across the country were chronically absent from school, defined as missing at least 10% — or 18 days or more — when California children returned to in-person classes for the 2021-22 academic year. That’s according to Stanford University professor Thomas Dee and The Associated Press, which dug into chronic absenteeism data across 40 states and Washington, D.C.

Before the pandemic, about 15% of students nationwide were chronically absent, the analysis found. By the end of the 2021-22 school year, that percentage had grown to about 28.5%, an increase of 6.5 million students — and of those students, about one million were from California.

“The reason the threshold is 10% is because that’s enough to make a significant impact,” said Jennifer Maddox, spokesperson for the San Jose Unified School District. “It’s really hard to address the underlying reasons (for absenteeism) if you can’t get the kid there.”

State data is not yet available for 2022-23, the school year that just ended in May or June in the Golden State. But nearly every district had a spike in chronic absenteeism from 2018-19 to 2021-22, with the average rate jumping from 12.1% to 30%, according to data analyzed by EdSource in partnership with the Associated Press. That translates into 1.77 million students who missed at least 20 days of school.

That pattern held true in the Bay Area, too: In 2022, districts reported an average absenteeism rate of 22%, nearly double the rate before the pandemic, EdSource found.

During the 2018-19 pre-COVID school year, Hayward Unified’s overall chronic absenteeism rate was just 15.5%. But by 2021-22, the district had the highest rate in the region, aside from the county education offices that enroll children with existing behavior or attendance issues. More than half of Hayward Unified’s near-19,000 students missed about a month of school during the 2021-22 school year. That number grew to 70% or more for those most at-risk — homeless and foster students.

Andrew Kevy, the director of student and parent support programs for the district, said the increase was largely due to COVID-19 infections and school policies regarding keeping children home if they or a family member experienced symptoms. Mental health also played a role, too. Anxiety about getting sick and the impacts of prolonged isolation didn’t just go away, Kevy said.

But Dee said his national analysis, based on data from 40 states and Washington D.C., contradicts the explanation that illness is the main cause of chronic absenteeism. By comparing such rates with COVID infection surges — along with state masking requirements, enrollment losses and muddy attendance definitions — Dee said that he found little evidence of any correlation.

While sickness may have played a role, he said, there are myriad factors that kept children out of school, from issues with transportation to mental health challenges and beyond.

“What we’re seeing in terms of chronic absenteeism, and this really sharp spike, suggests the importance of other barriers to learning that we don’t necessarily understand all that well,” said Dee.

One of those barriers is the major restructuring of day-to-day life that distance learning caused. To go from starting every day on a Zoom meeting to having to wake up and get on one of Skyline’s 15 buses by 7 a.m. is a difficult transition, Shapiro said. Add that to the fact that the school’s students are coming from as far as Antioch and may not have other means of transportation, showing up to the classroom becomes more difficult.

Sabeena Shah, English and history teacher at John O’Connell High School in the San Francisco Unified School District, also pointed to mental health as a contributing factor to chronic absenteeism. While the district’s high schools have wellness centers, reconnecting and re-engaging with students after the pandemic was a difficult task.

“I think definitely COVID has increased anxiety among both adults and young people,” said Shah. “I think we have to really think of ourselves in a new era of recovering from the pandemic.”

Shapiro agreed. While anxiety among students going to school isn’t necessarily new, after spending more than a year taking classes in living rooms and pajamas, putting microphones on mute and being placed into Zoom boxes, it’s not surprising students are less comfortable in school settings.

The ripple effects of that trend continue today. The few states that do have data from the 2022-23 school year, such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, still have roughly twice the chronic absenteeism rate as their pre-pandemic baselines.

Gerson Castro, an 11th grade history teacher at San Jose Unified’s Gunderson High, said he would expect the rates to be about the same last year as they were in 2021, despite being farther removed from the pandemic’s heyday. That’s likely to be especially true, he said, for kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“You’re taking a kid who probably lacked structure prior to the pandemic, and then you’re going to accelerate that lack of structure. And then, you bring them back,” Castro said. “But they were home for an entire year.”

As a result, those who struggle most at school are also those struggling the most to get back, experts say. Even with money and efforts to target learning loss, that cycle can be hard to beat. For example, Shah said, one of her students is juggling school while working multiple jobs to help her family.

“Our most prominent efforts at academic recovery from the pandemic involve in-school activities, such as tutoring and extended learning time, and supports that involve you being in the building,” said Dee. “If students aren’t there, that’s really going to vex what schools are trying to do.”

https://www.mercurynews.com/2023/08/10/in-the-wake-of-covid-19-one-million-california-students-were-chronically-absent-why-are-kids-missing-so-much-school/ The pandemic ended, but nearly 2 million California students were still chronically absent

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