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Opinion | How to Reduce Student Absenteeism

To the Editor:

“Pandemic Effect: Absence From Schools Is Soaring” (front page, March 30) highlights the persistent challenge of chronic absenteeism in U.S. schools. If pandemic-related “cultural shifts” are among the factors keeping students away from school, bringing them back may require us to rethink the culture of education itself.

Despite the efforts of many visionary educators, too many schools still offer a deskbound, test- and compliance-driven experience that leaves students passive, uninspired and flat-out bored.

Over the last two years, a pilot program in Salem, Mass., has succeeded in cutting chronic absenteeism among middle schoolers in half by listening to students and designing learning with their interests in mind, including regular field trips, hands-on projects and mentoring with college students. Today, the chronic absenteeism rate among the pilot cohort of seventh and eighth graders hovers at 8 percent, in no small part because students don’t want to miss what’s on offer at school.

Educators can reset school culture by being adaptive, believing in teacher leadership and recognizing that powerful learning can happen outside classroom walls. Unlike the use of Band-Aids and gimmickry that do not result in long-term change, valuing a philosophy of “education everywhere,” as Salem has embraced, will result in improved attendance and academic growth.

Stephen Hinds
Laura Tavares
Stephen Zrike
Chelsea Banks
Mr. Hinds is president and Ms. Tavares is executive director of the WPS Institute, an education nonprofit. Dr. Zrike is superintendent and Ms. Banks is dean of innovation for Salem Public Schools.

To the Editor:

This article brings light to an issue plaguing school districts across the country. As a former classroom teacher, I remember talking with students who returned to school after being absent. They would ask for the work they missed. While I could share the assignment, I could not possibly share the rest of what they missed, including the social and academic interaction with their peers, the instruction provided, the opportunity to ask questions while working through material and being part of a community.

When done right, school is more than a collection of assignments. It is a vibrant social fabric that provides a culture of belonging, and opportunities to grow and explore with trusted adults guiding the way.

The solution to the absenteeism problem is not easy. As the chief education officer at Mikva Challenge, a group that works to engage young people in the civic process and have their voices part of critical decision making affecting their lives, I know that for any solution to be successful, it must involve youth in the process.

Our default as adults is to make decisions in the best interest of children, without asking them what they think and whether an idea will work. Young people are not apathetic; they are uninvited. They care deeply about the issues that affect them. And when they are engaged in decision making, policy is better.

Jill Bass

To the Editor:

We had mixed feelings when reading “Pandemic Effect: Absence From Schools Is Soaring.” On the one hand, it’s important for the public to understand that chronic absenteeism in America is no small problem. On the other hand, the article unwittingly minimized the deep struggle so many families experience, particularly those from underresourced backgrounds.

You quote a researcher who stated, “The problem got worse for everybody in the same proportional way,” but we question whether this accurately reflects the reality in America today. Based on our own and others’ research, we believe that families who struggled before the pandemic were much more vulnerable to its effects.

We cannot ignore just how much deeper Covid affected communities of color, communities with risk factors, communities in poverty and communities in rural areas. This does not negate anyone’s struggles; yet the struggle has been disproportionate. This cannot be ignored.

Zahava L. Friedman
Keri Giordano
Hillside, N.J.
Dr. Friedman is an assistant professor and Dr. Giordano is an associate professor at the College of Health Professions and Human Services, Kean University.

To the Editor:

My 12-year-old son has been absent from school most of this year and is a part of the chronic absenteeism statistics cited in the article. His attendance was excellent until he caught Covid twice in one year from school. He was 9 years old and has been chronically ill ever since.

It is shocking to me that the article never suggests that some absenteeism might be due to chronic illness from Covid.

One recent study suggested that as many as 5.8 million kids in the United States have had their health affected by long Covid. These statistics are highly contested, but given how reluctant our doctors have been to diagnose or treat our child for something that they cannot measure with any blood test, it is not surprising that we do not really know the full extent of this disease.

My child, and many other children like him, cannot go to school because they are struggling with the persistent life-altering symptoms of chronic illness. These children want to go back to school. Don’t leave them out of the story.

Sarah Mathis
Pleasanton, Calif.

To the Editor:

The root causes of chronic absenteeism in American public schools are as varied as the solutions needed to combat it. One often overlooked and underfunded strategy with the potential to re-engage students in learning is arts education.

A 2021 study on the benefits of arts instruction in the Boston Public Schools showed that increased access to arts education reduced student absenteeism, with a greater impact on students who had been chronically absent.

BPS Arts Expansion is a public-private partnership that has dramatically expanded access to quality arts education throughout the school district and enabled longitudinal research on its impact.

No one strategy will be the panacea for chronic absenteeism. But as districts across the country grapple with this issue, expanding access to in-school arts instruction warrants attention.

Marinell Rousmaniere
The writer is the president and C.E.O. of EdVestors, a nonprofit school improvement organization.

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