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Kids Are Missing School at an Alarming Rate

This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email [email protected] with any questions.

katrin bennhold

From “The New York Times,” I’m Katrin Bennhold. This is “The Daily.”

[THEME MUSIC]

Today, long after schools have fully reopened, my colleague Sarah Mervosh describes a more permanent shift in the way kids and their parents think about being in class after the pandemic, which is that school feels optional and kids are still missing a lot of it.

It’s Tuesday, April 2.

Sarah, you’re an education reporter, and you’ve been looking at what’s happened in schools since the pandemic, when kids missed many hours of class and fell way behind on their learning targets. It’s been three years since most kids went back to school. So one might expect things to be almost back to normal, but you found something surprising. Tell us about that.

sarah mervosh

Yeah, things are really not back to normal, even though it has been quite a while since most or all kids have come back to the classroom. So for example, we know that kids are still academically behind since the pandemic. On average, US students have made up about a third of their pandemic learning losses in math and about a quarter of their losses in reading. So overall, academically students are not back to where they would have been without the pandemic.

katrin bennhold

Got it.

sarah mervosh

And then we’re also just seeing still a lot of behavioral challenges in the classroom, kids having a lot of trouble regulating their emotions and their ability to sit in the classroom and respond in an orderly way and be in a really structured environment. And so as an education reporter, I had been following all of these trends and wondering, like, why isn’t it back to normal?

katrin bennhold

And how did you answer that question? Why aren’t kids back to normal?

sarah mervosh

So I came across this data in this report that really crystallized things for me. And it was about absenteeism, the share of students who are missing a lot of days of school. Before the pandemic, about 15 percent of US students were chronically absent from school. After the pandemic, 28 percent of students were chronically absent from school. So that’s almost double.

katrin bennhold

Wow.

sarah mervosh

And last school year, the last school year for which these national estimates are available, it was 26 percent. So it had barely improved, and still 1 in 4 students were chronically absent from school.

katrin bennhold

And Sarah, what does chronically absent actually mean?

sarah mervosh

So the way that it’s typically defined is being absent for at least 10 percent of the school year. And that typically works out to about 18 days out of the year. And so the reason why all of this matters is because students not being in school and not being in school regularly relates directly back to the things I mentioned at the beginning about academic catch-up from the pandemic and academic performance as well as their ability to regulate their behavior, get into a routine, deal with some of the mental health aspects of the pandemic.

And so this issue is a window into what’s going on in schools today. And one of the most surprising things we saw in the data is that this is really happening across demographic groups.

katrin bennhold

Wow.

sarah mervosh

So in poor communities which had higher absenteeism rates before the pandemic, it has increased from about 19 percent before the pandemic to around 32 percent last school year. But in rich communities, it’s also increased from about 10 percent to 19 percent. And this is also happening similarly across demographics in terms of how long school districts stayed remote during the pandemic, which was a surprise to me.

So you see generally similar increases in chronic absenteeism on average in districts that were remote the longest and districts that were opening relatively quickly during the pandemic.

katrin bennhold

Wow. That is striking. And if it’s happening across demographic groups, is it equally happening across age groups or are there differences that you’re seeing?

sarah mervosh

So the way that one source described it to me is that chronic absenteeism is like a Nike Swoosh.

katrin bennhold

Explain that. What do you mean, a Nike Swoosh?

sarah mervosh

Yes. So in the early grades, you see higher rates of absenteeism in kindergarten and first grade, and then you see this long tail at the end. And in upper grades and high school, where absenteeism has also historically been high, so you have the least absenteeism in the middle, in elementary and middle school and then high rates on either end.

katrin bennhold

So let’s dig into that a little more. Do we know why some students still aren’t going back to school? What’s causing this absenteeism?

sarah mervosh

There’s no one factor that’s driving the absences. It’s more like there are a number of factors that pile up on top of one another. But probably the most universally shared reason that you’ll hear is just illness. Schools have always been germ factories. But with COVID, there is ostensibly one other virus in the mix as well as just a feeling of a changed culture around going to school and to work sick and I think some hesitance and caution from families about sending their child to school sick.

katrin bennhold

I can totally relate to that. Having three kids of my own, there is certainly this kind of self-consciousness that if somebody coughs or sniffles, you feel the sense of responsibility, of not exposing the world to your germs.

sarah mervosh

Yeah. And I think some would argue that’s been a positive cultural change for everyone’s health since the pandemic. But it’s also something that schools are now trying to fight against in terms of having some new messaging to remind people that school is obligatory. It is mandatory. And they’re trying to re-encourage families to send their kids to school unless they’re actively throwing up or they have an active fever. So it’s a new recalculation and recalibration.

katrin bennhold

So OK, sickness is one of the things that is keeping kids home more. What else is going on?

sarah mervosh

I think mental health and anxiety is another big issue, something that I heard in a lot of interviews with parents and counselors. So we know that students and children experienced increases in depression and anxiety during the pandemic, lots of disruption to their school and home lives. And what I’m hearing from parents as well as counselors is just a lot of increases in anxiety and the way that students relate to school because they were removed from school and were able to have distance and a barrier during critical periods of development, and re-engaging with that has been pretty hard on a lot of kids.

sarah mervosh

Hello. Hey, Dana. Me again.

sarah mervosh

There’s this one parent I spoke with in Atlanta. Her name is Dana Chevsky. She’s a mom of two teenagers. And she went through this with her son, who’s now 13.

dana

So my son, he’s very bright.

sarah mervosh

Before the pandemic, she described him as really social.

dana

Extremely social, very well liked, extremely athletic and gifted in that way, loved to do sports.

sarah mervosh

There were no major flags or issues regarding his attendance. And then like everyone else in the spring of 2020, he was sent home. He learns online. By fall of that year, he gets back to school relatively quickly, but things were not normal. They had to wear masks. And at some point, things start to take a turn.

dana

So he started to withdraw a bit from social activities. The fear of removing his mask in front of the other kids overtook his ability to go to football out of fear and anxiety. And that’s when we realized that something was very wrong.

sarah mervosh

Eventually, he is set to start middle school.

dana

He said, I’ll be fine when school starts in the fall. I just need the summer to do a reset.

sarah mervosh

And he’s telling himself he’s going to go, and it’s going to go OK. And —

dana

He said he was fine, and he was ready. And then the first day of school came, and he was not fine.

sarah mervosh

He doesn’t go.

dana

He refused to go to school the first few days, and he kept telling himself that he’ll do it tomorrow. And I think he was really convinced of that. And each time tomorrow would come, and he would get up and get ready. He would get in the car, and we would get to the parking lot of the school, and he just couldn’t do it.

sarah mervosh

It took a few days into the school year until he would actually go to school. And when he did, it went OK.

dana

He saw all his friends from fifth grade. They were all happy to see him. He felt great. He came home and was just so relieved that that chapter was over, as were we. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of further challenges.

sarah mervosh

But then it started to get worse.

dana

He started to miss school probably a day or two a week. He felt like he wasn’t really ready for the increased demands and pressures of middle school, both socially and academically. And his response to that was to just avoid it at any cost possible.

sarah mervosh

And by later that fall —

dana

We went from missing school one or two days a week the first month to, by October of that school year, he was refusing entirely.

sarah mervosh

He had pretty much stopped going altogether.

katrin bennhold

So it almost seems like Dana’s son is stuck in this vicious cycle where fear and anxiety beget more fear and anxiety.

sarah mervosh

Yeah, and a crucial thing is that her and her husband were able to work from home, which is one aspect of this, that some parents do have the ability to work remotely now, which she would say is a factor in allowing some of this to happen. And completely refusing school is perhaps an extreme example, but it is representative of some of the push and pull that kids are experiencing right now, where feeling anxious can make you want to avoid school. But then the more you don’t go to school and you’re out of your routines, it can make you feel more anxious about going.

So it can be a vicious cycle. And for Dana and her family and her son, it took some real professional intervention to help him get out of it.

katrin bennhold

OK, so anxiety about school and different feelings about sickness are a couple of drivers of this absenteeism that we’re seeing. What else?

sarah mervosh

Yeah, there are a number of other reasons. And for this it can depend on family situations. So I think it’s helpful to break it out into two different categories, higher income families and lower income families. For higher income communities and higher income families, I’m hearing a lot more that families are going on vacation. They’re not so beholden to the spring break calendar. It’s sort of like, no problem. Let’s add on a few days at the end. Maybe we’ll go off peak travel season.

I heard from a number of people that just aren’t blinking about that anymore. You learn online during COVID. We can just make it up online. We’ll just figure it out. There’s not that sense of obligatory attendance as there might have been before.

katrin bennhold

So basically the pandemic normalized this idea that kids don’t always need to show up, and maybe some parents are even taking advantage of that.

sarah mervosh

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s playing out in different ways depending on your family circumstance. So if you’re a higher income family, maybe you’re taking advantage of a deal to go to Hawaii for two weeks, and it’s not the peak, peak travel season. But if you’re a lower income family, you have different reasons. It’s the same underlying philosophy but the different motivating factors.

So some of the many reasons that lower income communities had higher rates of student absences before the pandemic still exist. Your student may have a job, and that job and the money that it brings in for your family is more valuable than the daily attendance as well as needing child care and babysitters for younger siblings. Maybe you were up all night with a family situation, and you’re tired and you oversleep. You’re not going to school that day. Transportation barriers.

There’s any number of reasons, but it’s also just this feeling that it doesn’t feel mandatory anymore, that any of one of those barriers is just a little more likely to keep you home than before.

katrin bennhold

So it’s quite a contrast, isn’t it? It’s almost like a perfect satirical snapshot of our very unequal society, right? I mean, so disadvantaged kids missing school because they’re working, and more privileged kids missing school because of vacation.

sarah mervosh

Yeah, and actually really speaks to some of the other things about absenteeism, where if you’re a higher income student, you’re less likely to be academically affected because you’re off getting an enriching experience when you’re out of school, whereas lower income students, it’s more harmful for them to miss school because the things that they’re missing for are not necessarily academic replacements.

katrin bennhold

So it sounds like there were a few things that were set in motion by the pandemic that exacerbated problems that were already there. And then because of the way the world settled into this new reality and developed new habits and attitudes towards sickness and remote work, you have this perfect storm that results in kids chronically missing more school.

sarah mervosh

Yeah, and I think on an individual level for any particular student or family, it might not seem so significant for the one day that you’re sick or the one day you go on vacation. But it does start to add up. And then when you look at a school level or a system level and the large number of students and families this is impacting, that’s where you start to see that this is having a huge impact on education.

katrin bennhold

We’ll be right back.

So Sarah, what is the implication of so many kids missing school?

sarah mervosh

Yeah, so one reason I think this is a helpful metric is because absenteeism helps explain why so many students across the country have not caught up from their pandemic learning losses. So it’s sort of both a cause and a symptom. If you’re behind academically, you don’t really want to go to school. If you don’t go to school, you fall further behind academically. And then with mental health, if you have a lot of anxiety, you may not want to go to school. But then not going can fuel your anxiety even more.

So it’s all really interrelated. And looking at this gives us a clearer picture of the challenges facing schools right now. And part of why this is so relevant is because absenteeism has impacts beyond the students who are absent themselves. So not only is it bad for their academics. There’s research that shows that when classmates are absent, it can negatively harm the academics of even the students who do show up. Because the teacher has to adjust their curriculum and slow down a bit to make sure that everyone’s on the same page.

And then there’s other research that shows that absenteeism is culturally contagious. On a given day, if at least 10 percent of your classmates are absent, you are then more likely to be absent the following day.

katrin bennhold

So we’ve talked a lot about the negative impacts of missing school and this doom loop, if you will. And school, in many ways, is about more than just the academics, right? So what are kids missing out on apart from this crucial time of learning?

sarah mervosh

Yeah, I mean, school is where you get prepared for social life and work life and society. And so beyond the academics, there’s a lot that goes into school. For very young students who were very young during the pandemic, there’s the element of learning to stand in line for the bathroom, learning how to hold a pencil, learning to share.

These are all things that kids are learning in school. And for older students, there’s like learning to engage with the world in a way that you’re going to have to do as an adult in the workforce. So one thing that really stuck out to me is I talked to a school counselor who told me the kids at her high school got so used to just googling solutions during the pandemic that they have a lot of anxiety around taking a test they don’t the answers to or having a difficult conversation with a teacher.

And so those social skills, those practicing of awkward encounters or just acknowledging when you don’t know something and having to have a conversation with someone else that you then use in the workforce and your adult life, school is where we practice all of these things.

katrin bennhold

So when experts project out into the long term effects of all of this, what are they worried about?

sarah mervosh

I mean, as a nation we’re concerned with whether students are catching up from the pandemic. We saw historic losses during the pandemic, particularly in math. And the federal government has poured billions of dollars into helping schools catch up. But if students are not there, they cannot benefit from interventions in order to catch up. And so that has impacts on our economic future as a country as well as for the students themselves and the system.

When you’re in those early grades, establishing those daily habits of attendance is crucial for your success later on. And in older grades, you’re running out of time. And so being chronically absent to a serious degree can be a predictor of dropout or disengagement from high school.

katrin bennhold

So all age groups basically suffer and the stakes are high. I guess the next question is, how do we fix this? Are there any solutions that you know of that are actually working?

sarah mervosh

Yeah, so there’s lots of research out there that you have to tackle absenteeism from multiple angles. Some of the things we’ve seen that have worked, there are campaigns to text message with parents or send postcards to their home, letting them know how many absences actually have been accumulated so far that school year. That has seen some positive effects.

There’s been some research that tutoring can have a positive effect on absenteeism, perhaps because it helps people engage academically and interrupts that cycle we were talking about. And then there’s home visiting, which has seen some really promising results, where school districts are sending representatives out to connect with families in their homes and find out why are you not going to school, what can we do to help you?

sarah mervosh

Hi, it’s Sarah at “The New York Times.”

sarah mervosh

I actually spoke to a mom in Michigan who received one of these visits.

sarah mervosh

So tell me about you. What is your name? Where do you live? Tell me a little bit about your family.

sarah mervosh

Her name is Regina Murph.

regina

It’s myself. And I have four children. I have two that are grown and moved out.

sarah mervosh

She has two school aged kids.

regina

My six-year-old is a 12-year-old that are with me, they’re both boys, and they’re attending Ypsi Community Schools.

sarah mervosh

And during the pandemic, she was working at a nursing home so she had a lot of virus exposure.

dana

And I lost my younger sister. That put me in a different mindset.

sarah mervosh

And she lost her sister to COVID-19.

regina

And I feel like that that’s when things fell apart in a sense.

sarah mervosh

And she was just struggling.

regina

With my six-year-old, in the morning, I try to make sure I have everything together. Because if you’re missing a shoe or if you’re missing simple items, it’s like a domino effect, I would say.

sarah mervosh

Parents know sometimes the mornings can be rough when you’re trying to get your kids to school.

regina

And then he ends up missing the bus. I’ll say, oh, just forget it. We’ll try again tomorrow.

sarah mervosh

And it was just harder to get her kids to school in the morning early enough to make the bus.

regina

And then there’s the fear of sickness. Sending my kids out there, will they get sick? I don’t want anything to happen to them. It’s a lot of fears. It was a lot of fears there.

sarah mervosh

And so her kids started to miss a good amount of school.

regina

And then someone came to my house, and they just told me that they were worried about their attendance and how —

sarah mervosh

And eventually she got a visit.

regina

And I was —

sarah mervosh

How does it make you feel to have someone come out and ask you about that?

regina

I mean, a part of you is embarrassed. But it was refreshing to know that I had those options to be able to reach out to them.

sarah mervosh

The way that she described it to me, she was a little embarrassed, but she also felt a little bit less alone. She was going through a hard time in her life. And so this home visit helped re-establish the relationship with school, helped make her more aware of how many absences her kids had accumulated, helped her maybe make more of an effort in the mornings when it is hard to get them to school because she knows there’s going to be other times when they’ll have to miss because they really are sick.

katrin bennhold

So it’s this kind of direct intervention, a personal intervention that maybe has the hope of rebuilding the connection, the broken connection often between parents, kids, and schools that we’ve seen since the pandemic.

sarah mervosh

Yeah, I mean, I don’t think it’s the only way, but it speaks to something that’s really critical. Schools have always been the center of American life and the center of neighborhoods. They’re supposed to be places of community, places of relationships, friendships. And so reestablishing that connection is really important to helping students and families feel like there’s reason to go to school.

And I think by all indications, things are slowly getting better but not — we’re not back to pre-pandemic levels. And this school year is going to be critical. When we see the data from this school year, what is it going to show?

I mean, in interviews, I’m talking to educators who are telling me, at least in their school, it’s continuing to some degree this school year. So I think there’s some evidence that while things are getting better very slowly as time goes on, something has changed fundamentally. When you think back to all of those different reasons that families are giving and why kids are missing school, they’re pretty diverse. There’s a bunch of different reasons but the core theme that underlies them is this shift in this mindset that school is now optional, and that mindset took root during the pandemic. And that was the lived experience for many families.

School, it was optional to attend school in person. When school shut down, that broke the daily norm and it severed a lot of families trust in the education system that is supposed to be a reliable place. And then when schools reopened, there were still options. There were relaxed policies around grading and attendance. And so it all culminates in this cultural shift of school feeling optional.

And I think that’s something that you see in society more broadly. If you look at remote work, for example, the rate of remote work for those who can work remotely has remained about the same since late 2022. So that seems to be here to stay. That’s a long-term cultural shift brought about by the pandemic. And so this question is like, is that going to happen with schools?

We saw that the pandemic exacerbated and revealed all of the beauties and flaws of our education system. Students lost a lot of ground not being in person. So you can see on the one hand, what the value that schools bring. But then on the other hand, it revealed all of the flaws of our imperfect public education system and the flaws of a system that’s pretty strained in terms of its resources and its ability to serve all students and then their increasing needs.

They have more academic needs. They have more mental health and behavioral needs. And so you’re seeing that all culminate in this moment.

katrin bennhold

So in some ways, the pandemic crippled our school system. And by doing so, it actually showed the essential role schools play in society.

sarah mervosh

Yeah. And I think also the essential role that relationships and connection to one another play in society. And today, years out from the pandemic, I hear from teachers who are so exhausted and feel so underappreciated. They’re facing so many challenges in their classroom. I hear from parents who feel failed in some ways by the school system, and their kids are not getting what they need. And so we’re at this moment where we’re at a crossroads.

Will school stay optional? Or will we come together again? Can this trust be rebuilt? Will schools be the pillars in our community going forward?

katrin bennhold

Sarah, thank you.

sarah mervosh

Thank you.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

katrin bennhold

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. Donald Trump has posted a $175 million bond that will prevent authorities in New York from seizing his assets, including his best-known properties, while he appeals a civil court judgment against him. Trump owes New York more than $450 million after a judge found he and his sons knowingly inflated the value of their properties. He was originally asked to pay a bond in that amount, an amount he was having trouble securing, and only got the bond once it was later lowered to $175 million. If Trump loses his appeal, he will still owe the full $450 million.

And Israeli airstrikes destroyed part of the Iranian embassy complex in Syria, killing at least seven Iranian officers overseeing covert operations in the Middle East. Three generals in the external military and intelligence service of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and four other officers died in the attack, making it one of the deadliest in a years long shadow war between Israel and Iran.

Today’s episode was produced by Clare Toeniskoetter, Luke Vander Ploeg, Summer Thomad, and Diana Nguyen. It was edited by MJ Davis Lin and Paige Cowett, contains original music by Marion Lozano and Dan Powell, and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

[THEME MUSIC]

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Katrin Bennhold. See you tomorrow.

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