Why aren't kids going to school? COVID taught them some bad habits.

COVID-19 learning loss is an enormous problem, and catching students up at scale increasingly looks impossible. A recent national study found that third through eighth grade students were more than four months behind academically and that last school year most learned at a slower pace than their pre-pandemic peers.

The most likely fixes aren’t getting enough traction. High-intensity tutoring programs might work, but so far, not enough students are participating. Extra learning time could help, but most schools have proved unable or unwilling to add significant time to their calendars.

But even if such fixes could get enough traction, one thing is clear: Novel efforts to add extra learning opportunities don’t stand a chance if kids are not consistently attending school in the first place. On this foundational aspect of school culture, new data show that far too many students are falling short.

Nationwide, chronic absenteeism − the percentage of students missing at least 10% of a school year − surged from 15% in 2018 to 29% last year. The scale of this change is hard to comprehend, and shocking. In 2018, 3 in 4 students attended school districts with chronic absenteeism below 19%, but by last year fewer than 1 in 4 did.

COVID-19 learning loss was most severe for disadvantaged students, and so too is chronic absenteeism. Nationwide district-level data from the American Enterprise Institute’s Return to Learn Tracker, which I run, shows that in the highest-achieving third of school districts, chronic absenteeism increased 10 points − from 10% to 20% − between 2018 and 2022, but for the lowest-achieving third of districts, chronic absenteeism increased 17 points − from 19% to 36%.

Similar gaps were found between high- and low-poverty districts, meaning that in low-achieving and in high-poverty districts, more than a third of students missed nearly a month of school.

This is not a recipe for overcoming learning loss, for students or for schools. It should go without saying that students won’t learn as much if they miss too much school, but the problem runs deeper than that. When large numbers of students are chronically absent, the pace of classroom instruction slows for everyone. Teachers spend time covering old material instead of presenting new content, and their time and attention are diverted from students with more consistent attendance.

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Absenteeism higher now than before the pandemic

COVID-19 was responsible for much of the pandemic increase in chronic absenteeism − if students are home sick, they are not in school − but coronavirus infections do not appear to be the only problem. Chronic absenteeism was highest during the 2021–22 school year, when the omicron wave swept the nation.

Yet, as the pandemic receded the following year, chronic absenteeism in 2022-23 remained 74% higher than the pre-pandemic baseline in the 28 states that have reported data.

That decrease is welcome, but it is far smaller than we would expect if coronavirus infections were the sole culprit. Additionally, COVID-19 case rates did not differ across districts by achievement, poverty rates or multiple other factors, the way that chronic absenteeism has.

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Chronic absenteeism is a pandemic problem, but it is also a problem of habit. The pandemic disrupted the behavioral routines and expectations of schooling, but the receding pandemic threat may not translate into a return to normal behavior for a simple reason: Habits are sticky.

During the pandemic, students, parents and educators became more accustomed to student absences, and they may stay accustomed to them long after the pandemic has subsided. Polling from this school year shows that more than 1 in 4 teachers say absences are more frequent this year than last year, and about half say absences are about the same. These trends look like an unwelcome cultural change.

In efforts to improve education outcomes, cultural problems routinely eat policy solutions for breakfast. Regardless of how good instructional practices, curriculum materials or administrative procedures are, in school communities where basic educational norms such as consistently showing up have eroded, the benefits of education will be reduced.

Solving chronic absenteeism will not fix learning loss by itself, but it is an essential prerequisite for getting students back on track and reestablishing a healthy post-pandemic normalcy.

Changing students' habits ingrained during the pandemic won't be easy

We must restore the rhythms of schooling and get kids back in the classroom consistently to make headway on academic recovery. Unlike most other proposals for tackling learning loss, addressing chronic absenteeism doesn’t require complex programs, legislation, school board votes or costly infusions of federal funding. But it does require getting students and parents back on board.

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That task seems simple, but like any other attempt to change societal habits, it won’t be easy. It will require education leaders to repeatedly communicate the extent of the problem and urgently insist that the time to return to school consistently is now.

From school staff, it will take regular, direct and positive communications to families whose students are piling up absences. From school districts, it will take carrots such as rewards programs and recognition for improved attendance and sticks such as calls from principals or visits from truancy officers to create strong incentives to get to school.

Most important, it will require parents to fulfill their moral and legal obligations to ensure their children show up consistently.

Parents, educators and the public are no doubt weary of yet another alarm over the crises in our schools. But chronic absenteeism is not another crisis. It is part of a larger crisis that puts students’ future and the nation’s economy at risk. And fixing that part is a first and essential step to recovery.

Fortunately, on this point there is reason for optimism: Before the pandemic, parents were in the habit of sending their kids to school more consistently. Asking parents to return to standards they maintained only a few years ago, standards that were by no means ideal, should not be too much to ask.

But if we are unwilling to ask this of parents, we will cement lowered pandemic expectations into the culture of schools and consign generations of students to worse education outcomes.

Nat Malkus
Nat Malkus

Nat Malkus is a senior fellow and the deputy director of Education Policy Studies with the American Enterprise Institute.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Do I have to go to school? Why more kids than ever are skipping class