Coming out of the pandemic, students in Maryland and across the nation, had a hard time getting back into the habit of being in school buildings, with classroom rules and the need to communicate with friends and teachers in person.
The result was that the percentage of schools with consistently high numbers of absent students almost doubled.
Just how bad attendance was in the 2021-2022 school year is laid out in a new report that shows three-quarters of Maryland schools had high or extreme levels of chronic absence among students. In half of Maryland schools, 30% of students were chronically absent, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center and Attendance Works, a nonprofit that advocates for solutions to the problem of chronic absence.
“Places where it was high it got much higher, and places where it wasn’t an issue, it became an issue,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. The report urges state and local leaders to take action on the issue. When large numbers of students are frequently absent, it affects how the entire school functions. Teachers must reteach some material, and students have a more difficult time feeling connected to one another, Balfanz said.
Students are considered chronically absent if they miss at least 10% of school days. Nationwide, the portion of school districts with high or extreme levels of chronic absenteeism increased from 25% before the pandemic to 63.1% after in-person school resumed. In states like Connecticut that have reduced rates significantly, leaders sent people to do home visits to bring students back to school.
One Baltimore company, Concentric Educational Solutions, has been working with school districts to help reduce chronic absences by making home visits when students have attendance problems.
While the highest rates of chronic absence are in Baltimore City, school districts throughout the state have high levels, or at least 20% of their students regularly missing school. In rural areas, 74% of schools had at least 20% of their students chronically absent and in the suburbs, half of schools have just under one-third of their students chronically absent.
And in nearly one-third of the school districts in the state that had more than three schools, the vast majority of their schools had high rates of chronic absence, making it difficult, the report said, for administrators to focus on the problem.
The report suggests that creating community schools, which Maryland is doing, can help increase the attendance. Community schools are those have resources such as expanded health care services that help the community around the school. In addition, the report concludes that encouraging students with poor attendance to take part in athletics and after-school activities increases their connections to other students and teachers and makes attendance likely to improve.
Attendance is improving across the nation, but it is still not back to pre-pandemic levels. Maryland State Department of Education data for last school year shows that efforts to entice students back still haven’t solved the problem.
In Baltimore, 54% of students were chronically absent last year, the highest percentage in the state, but many other school districts also saw substantial numbers of students who were frequently absent. In Baltimore County, 35% of students missed at least 10% of school days, and in Anne Arundel, one-quarter were absent that percentage of the time.
When Maryland released its star ratings in December, high rates of chronic absenteeism deflated some schools’ scores.
As school systems roll out new initiatives, such as the science of reading or tutoring, they must make sure students are in class for the programs to work. So some school districts nationally are putting in place programs to improve attendance beside those new initiatives, Balfanz said. “You have to have the solution and work to make sure the kids are there,” he said.