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New Data Reveals School Attendance Numbers During The Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the big unanswered questions of this pandemic has been whether and how kids are showing up for school. Research shows that missing more than 10% of days in a school year has a serious impact on learning. Well today, the Department of Education has released the first set of national data on school attendance during the pandemic. Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team is here with us to break it down.

Hey, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what did this federal survey show?

KAMENETZ: The topline numbers are pretty reassuring. They're similar to before the pandemic, with about 9 in 10 students attending every day, whether that's remote, hybrid or traditional in-person. But what got us thinking, Ailsa, was that more schools skipped this attendance question than any other question on the survey.

CHANG: Oh, interesting. Why might that be?

KAMENETZ: Well, one factor could be that during the pandemic, 19 states have not been requiring daily attendance-taking in all the modes of instruction. And that's compared to all 50 states that required it back when school was every day in person. And even if they do require it, there's a wide range of what it means to be, quote unquote, "present" in remote learning. It could be live roll call over video, or it could just be, like, a teacher checking in and hearing from a student on that day.

And there's one other thing that might not be in that 9 in 10 number, and that is that during the pandemic, there are some students who are tending to be disengaged a lot more often than they were before. So Hedy Chang is with the organization Attendance Works. And she says chronic absenteeism is usually what we define as 18 days missing in a regular school year. And that 18 days is a tipping point when you start to see problems with moving on to the next grade or even students at risk of dropping out. But now, during COVID, Hedy Chang says...

HEDY CHANG: There's a lot more kids missing a lot more school. So we typically have said you look at severe chronic absence kids missing 20% or more. But now, you're seeing some evidence that there's all these kids who are, like, missing 50-, 60% or more, like they're more absent than they are present.

CHANG: Wow. That seems like that could be really serious for some children. Why is this happening?

KAMENETZ: You know, it's tricky. It's complex. Obviously, all the data is not there. But when you look at the pandemic stresses on families - the unemployment, the mental health issues both for parents and children - all of this can negatively impact school attendance.

And then, you know, there's the problems with how school might be working or not working this year. In the remote mode, some students still don't have devices, especially in rural areas. Wi-Fi has outages. Maybe there's no adult who can sit by them all day long to make sure they're engaged. I can tell you anecdotally, I hear all the time from parents whose kids for days, for weeks are closing the door, switching from Zoom class to YouTube or to Minecraft.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: And (laughter), you know, that happens. You kind of play hooky. But then some schools have a teacher follow up with the parent right away when that happens. Other schools, you might get an automated text message at the end of the grading period. You know, there's also been a lot of confusion in the in-person mode. Pretty much every month of this year, districts across the country have either opened or closed. They've opened to one grade level. And so that gets very confusing.

CHANG: And real quick, what can schools do to improve attendance, you think?

KAMENETZ: Well, the good news is that evidence backs a lot of approaches that make schools safer, more welcoming, offer more services and generally a better place to be. All of that can help with attendance.

CHANG: That is Anya Kamenetz of NPR's education team.

Thank you, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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