By JOHN RICHARD SCHROCK
If the melody from the folk song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” by Pete Seeger entered your mind when you read the title—good! That song was a lament over serious political concerns. This continuing disappearance of K–12 students during these pandemic years is no less serious.
Data released last Wednesday by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that chronic absenteeism continues to rise among students at public schools. Data were collected during May 2022 from 868 schools nationwide. The NCES, the agency that oversees the NAEP (the “national report card”), is charged with measuring the impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s public schools.
Chronic absenteeism was already a problem in the U.S. before the pandemic. The U.S.D.E. website reported: “Over 7 million students missed 15 or more days of school in 2015-16. That’s 16% of the student population—or about 1 in 6 students.” It is more severe in later grades. “Overall, more than 20% of students in high school are chronically absent compared with more than 14% of students in middle school. The chronic absenteeism rate was the lowest for elementary school students…. “Chronic absenteeism is widespread—about one out of every six students missed three weeks or more of school in 2015-16. That translates to more than 100 million school days lost.”
NCES data released last Wednesday found that in the 2021-2022 school year, 45 percent of schools reported student chronic absenteeism had “increased a lot” from before the pandemic. This problem varied by regions, with 59% of schools in the West reporting student chronic absenteeism “increased a lot.” This was less in the Midwest (45%), Northeast (39%) and South (38%).
At the same time student absenteeism has increased, student behavioral issues also increased for those in attendance. Schools report higher levels of classroom disruptions from student misconduct (56%), student tardiness (55%), rowdiness outside the classroom (49%), and “student acts of disrespect other than verbal abuse directed at teachers or staff” (48%).
Chronic absenteeism is defined “…as missing at least 10 percent of days in a school year for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences.” In those cases where a student has unexcused absences in excess of the number of times allowed by the school district, this becomes “truancy.” In legal terms this is considered a “status offense” that would be a crime if it was an adult. Truancy law varies among states. If a student is under 17 or 16, a variety of penalties can be applied, from being banned from sports participation to school suspension or expulsion to referral to juvenile court. In many states, parents are also subject to criminal charges.
Parents who withdraw their child from the local public school can enroll them in private or parochial schools, or even homeschool them. However, there are still requirements the child be educated. Some states designate a home school curriculum to be taught. Some require homeschool students to pass certain assessments. And some merely request the parent notify the state education department that they are homeschooling.
Nevertheless, all of these requirements get diluted during a time when there is widespread difficulty avoiding contagion, some parents are working in high risk essential services, etc. To me the most poignant situation is the family without a home, where the parent and child/children are living in a car or couch-surfing with friends. For these students, their daily contact with their teacher was an important connection with someone who really cared for them. Many are now among the disappeared.
Our society contrasts dramatically from schools in China. A few years ago, I walked down the hall of a middle school attached to a normal (teacher training) university. I could select any class. We entered a large classroom with 60 students. They were facing the front of the room and did not know we were present. All were reading and taking notes.
“There is no teacher,” I whispered to the headmaster.
“Yes, it is a study hall,” he replied.
“But they are all quiet,” I continued.
“Yes, they are studying very hard,” he replied, not recognizing my puzzlement.
“But without a teacher present, why don’t some misbehave?” I whispered bluntly.
“Oh, if they do that, they know they will be replaced by a student who will work hard.”
In a culture where parents and students greatly value education, I cannot explain our problem of chronic absenteeism. When they had to close schools for two months in early 2020 to eliminate transmission, they soon returned to school and forfeited the summer holiday to catch completely up. China has no chronic absenteeism because their culture highly values education.
But in the U.S. and across K–12, our students attending school suffered substantial learning loss, with some young students who are dropping out of education completely.
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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities during 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.