Central Ohio schools tackle increased chronic absenteeism as students head back to class
Students are heading back to school, but many will repeatedly miss classes – leaving them less prepared.
The Ohio Department of Education defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10% of instructional time for any reason – excused or unexcused. Data from 2017 to 2021 shows that statewide chronic absenteeism nearly doubled from about 16% before the pandemic to 30% in the 2021-2022 school year.
Hilliard City Schools Superintendent David Stewart said absenteeism has always been a problem for schools, but since the pandemic, it’s exploded.
“And I’m not sure we saw it coming,” he said.
In Hilliard and many other school districts, students who miss 18 days or more a year are considered chronically absent. Last year, just over one-fourth of high school students met that threshold, Stewart said. That’s up from about 11% in 2017.
There are similar trends across other grade levels: elementary chronic absence last year was at 14% compared to 2017’s 3% and sixth to eighth grade’s chronic absence rate jumped 20% in the same time frame, Stewart said.
Overall, more than half of the Hilliard's students missed 10 days or more of school.
“And when I saw it in front of me for the first time, I about fell out of my chair, and so did, you know, about 70 other administrators in the room,” Stewart said.
Hilliard is not the only school district marking a notable increase in chronic absenteeism. In both Groveport-Madison and Whitehall school districts, students were chronically absent about 40% of the time in the 2021-2022 school year, which in both cases was down from the year before but double the rate before the pandemic.
Even New Albany, which had the lowest rate of chronic absenteeism in the county in the 2017-2018 school year at 5%, saw that number triple to about 15% in 2021-2022.
Franklin County overall had a chronic absenteeism rate of about 35% in the 2021-2022 school year, up from about 20% five years earlier.
A marker of success
Stewart said by ninth grade, attendance is a better predictor of graduation than eighth grade test scores.
Chris Woolard, Ohio Department of Education interim superintendent of public instruction, said that data shows students who are chronically absent are less likely to be proficient readers and more likely to drop out.
While the importance of attendance is clear, the reasons why more students are missing more school is complex.
“You know, the reason – it's, it is health reasons. It is mental health reasons. It is transportation issues. It is you know, it's – it's this long sort of laundry list of why,” Wollard said. “And it's going to vary by student. It's going to vary by community.”
Shawn Grime, Ohio School Counselor Association director and a school counselor at Archbold High School in Archbold, Ohio, believes some students got used to flexible schedules at home during the pandemic, which may have intensified a disconnect with school.
Schools have also noted a decline in participation in extra-curricular activities that used to be motivators for students to attend, he said.
“I think we can't talk about attendance without, you know, addressing the mental health concerns that are going on with students nowadays,” he added.
More students are struggling with depression and anxiety, Grime said.
“It's not that they're maybe not wanting to come to school, it's just they may just be struggling just with that feeling of like – like I just I can't get out of bed. I can't go face people today, you know?” he said.
State data suggests other factors are at play, too:
Black students have consistently had the highest rate of chronic absenteeism, with 50% of Black students chronically absent in the 2021-2022 school year.
Hispanic, American Indian and multiracial students are also chronically absent more often than white students – while Asian students historically have a lower rate of chronic absence.
And lower-income students are about three times more likely to miss a significant amount of school.
Still, the rate of absenteeism is – for the most part – climbed across the board in the years following the pandemic.
“I think we can't talk about attendance without, you know, addressing the mental health concerns that are going on with students nowadays."-Shawn Grimes, Ohio School Counselor Association director
South-Western City Schools has bucked the trend. District spokesperson Evan Debo said chronic absenteeism dropped from over 50 percent in 20-21 to about 30 percent last year.
The reason, he said, is that the district added counselors and student support positions and began partnerships with agencies that connect struggling families to resources they need.
“[If] some of those basic needs aren’t met, you know, the other pieces kind of get lost in the peripheral, such as school and homework and getting stuff turned in,” Debo said.
Plus, South-Western is finding ways to engage students, like starting a Harry Potter-like house system where students compete to get the best grades – and best attendance.
Hilliard Superintendent Stewart addressed the issue in his welcome message for the new school year and sent emails to parents showing their child’s attendance for last year compared to other students in that grade level.
“Our theory is that in many, many cases it just happens because it's a day or two at a time that you don't realize piles up over the course of eight or nine months,” he said.
Stewart said the doesn’t want so shame anyone – there are plenty of good reasons for being absent – but he wants to start a conversation with families.
“We have amazing teachers and amazing opportunities for kids. But if [students are] not here, they're not going to benefit from that,” Stewart said.
"We're really trying to take a proactive approach to have it be kind of a positive change in culture and mindset around it."Chris Woolard, Ohio Department of Education interim superintendent of public instruction
Staying in the Game
ODE has invested some $15 million of federal pandemic relief into attendance support, including programs like the Stay in the Game partnership with the Columbus Crew and Cleveland Browns, Woolard said.
"And, you know, we're really trying to take a proactive approach to have it be kind of a positive change in culture and mindset around it,” Woolard said.
Columbus City Schools uses the Stay in the Game program and a partnership with the Crew for its attendance program. It also partners with EveryDay Labs to send text messages to families letting them know how many days their child has missed, said district spokesperson Jacqueline Bryant.
She said that’s part of an effort to reduce “very concerning” chronic absence rates following the pandemic.
“Chronic absenteeism is a real concern. Our numbers in Columbus City Schools show that missing as few as eight days of class can cut in half an elementary student's likelihood of passing the Third Grade Reading Guarantee or cut in half a high school student's chance of graduation,” Bryant said.
She said absenteeism rates decreased from almost 75% in the 2020-2021 school year to about 58% in the most recent school year.
School districts’ absenteeism data for last year will officially be released in September with the state school report cards, which will give an indication of which direction the trends are heading statewide and in individual districts.