By Elizabeth Romanov
Over the past 10 months, school officials have faced an attendance crisis as an estimated three million students have likely not received any formal education since March 2020.
Furthermore, an analysis of aggregated localized data suggests enrollment rates in public schools are declining. Enrollment declines are especially pronounced for groups from both ends of the K-12 student population.
Parents are seeking alternative schooling options for their kindergarteners while some high school students are opting to enter the workforce to assist their families financially.
Bellwether Education recently released a report detailing the extent of the attendance crisis. NCSL’s Dan Thatcher and Elizabeth Romanov spoke with one of the authors, Hailly Korman, about the complexity of the issue, the financial implications for states in the future and policy options for school districts and states.
Although schools have been addressing coronavirus-induced attendance complications for months, it is difficult to discern whether student attendance is substantially improving with time.
An online survey of educators conducted by the Education Week Research Center from Sept. 30 to Oct. 8, 2020, found daily student absence rates have increased from an average of 6% prior to the pandemic to 10% this fall.
Attendance declines are not uniform across student populations. The focus of Bellwether’s report is specifically on students from historically marginalized populations, including those who are homeless, in foster care, with disabilities, and are English learners, who have been noticeably absent from the virtual classroom.
In Korman’s view, the primary barrier to effectively assist missing students is the lack of reliable attendance data.
“We need to know who is missing and why. Having this data would be really helpful to deliver a diagnosis,” she said. Thus far, responses have been localized and vary by district but “every school and district leader is doing manual labor to reach out and find students.”
For many students, technical barriers pose a significant challenge, as 25% of all school-aged children live in households without broadband access or a web-enabled device. In response, millions of digital devices have been provided to students to facilitate the switch to remote learning. Other reasons for the pronounced absence, however, require significant resources and increased collaboration between state agencies to address.
As the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic places undue financial pressures on students from marginalized backgrounds and their families, some students are transitioning into the labor force while others are experiencing housing insecurity for the first time.
Education agencies do not have adequate resources to support these students on their own. To adequately identify and bring students back into the education system, states will have to pursue technical solutions to connect databases.
According to Korman, coordination and data sharing is the first step to take to meet family needs.
“Deepening collaboration and relationships have been a long time coming,” says Korman. “Silos are a big piece of this but efforts to build collaboration between state agencies are emerging.”
Ultimately, states must remember these students are not gone. Indeed, there are long term consequences, often inter-generational, when students do not return to or complete their education. Although attendance issues may be short-term for the majority of students, states and school districts could permanently lose a significant number of already disenfranchised students.
Elizabeth Romanov is an intern in NCSL’s Education Program.