by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
[I]ncreases in chronic absenteeism were widespread during the pandemic. More worrisome, using the most recent data for the 2022–23 school year, I show that even after the pandemic subsided drastically, the elevated rates of chronic absenteeism fell very little.
I find that the national average chronic absenteeism rate increased from 15 percent in 2019 to 28 percent in 2022 and remained substantially elevated in 2023. I also use district-level data to report variable rates of chronic absenteeism by district characteristics including pre-pandemic achievement, poverty, size, and the duration of remote instruction in the 2021 school year. Of particular concern, the percentage-point increases in chronic absenteeism were larger in districts and among groups that already had higher chronic absenteeism rates before the pandemic.
Given the potential for these rates of chronic absenteeism to hamper urgently needed recovery from pandemic learning loss and its negative association with school culture, chronic absenteeism is likely public schools’ greatest post-pandemic challenge.
The tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic made one thing about education excruciatingly clear: Consistently showing up to school is good for students. During the pandemic, extended closures and remote learning kept millions of students out of school for unprecedented periods of time, causing significant problems for students and schools. The academic consequences of these disruptions are glaringly evident in students’ test scores, the social and emotional fallout is reflected in numerous indicators, and the behavioral challenges seen following the return to in-person schooling have made life difficult on students, teachers, and entire school communities. Indeed, as pronouncements from policymakers, headlines on op-ed pages, and school district press releases have all suggested, if we are to catch students up from pandemic learning loss, we have to do more than just return to the status quo.