Absenteeism: All hands on deck for silent educational crisis

October 20, 2023 7:00 am

Missing school is a troubling new trend in Indiana. (Getty Images)

When I was growing up, going to school was not optional. Unless I had a fever and couldn’t get out of bed, I went — no “Price Is Right” on the couch for me. Schools made a big deal out of showing up, even giving away free bikes for perfect attendance.

But the data is clear now: parents are more permissive with their children’s attendance. And that hurts kids.

The Indiana Department of Education shocked many when it recently released data showing that about 40% of Hoosier students missed 10 or more school days last year, and nearly one in five were absent for at least 18 days.

The chronic absentee rate in the 2018-19 school year was just 11.2%. But it rose to 18.5% in 2020-21 — the first year after the pandemic — and topped out at 21.1% in the 2021-22 school year, according to state data.

The 2022-23 data indicates that 19.3% of students were chronically absent from school.

To put those percentages into raw numbers, roughly 221,000 Hoosier students were considered chronically absent during the last academic year.

More than 400,000 students missed at least 10 days of school — which, per Indiana statute — made them “habitually absent.”

And it’s not just in Indiana. The national chronic absenteeism rate has skyrocketed since the pandemic, from 16% in 2019 to an estimated 33% in 2022. This is the highest rate since the U.S. Department of Education released its first national measurement of chronic absenteeism in 2016.


So, the question is ‘why?’

There are always barriers, especially for children in poverty. Transportation is one area that is increasingly problematic, as bus driver shortages mean last-minute cancellations and parents with no backups.

But there is a clear correlation to the pandemic, when kids were sent home for much of the school year in 2020. At the time, it was the right call. We have lots of hindsight now, but back then, COVID-19 was a novel virus that no one had experience with, and officials did the best they could with limited and changing information.

Schools quickly set up remote instruction and students, parents and educators muddled through.

But somehow, parents and students took away from that pandemic that it’s not a big deal for their kids to miss school. They email; they receive assignments and send them back. Even snow days are now e-learning.

Technology is a supplement that should be used sparingly. Being in the classroom has a direct correlation to success.

A White House release last month said research shows that school absences take a toll on grades and performance on standardized tests. Beyond test scores, irregular attendance can be a predictor of high school drop-out, which has been linked to poor labor market prospectsdiminished health, and increased involvement in the criminal justice system.

What’s next

It’s clear schools need to do more to encourage attendance, starting with direct outreach to parents.

One suggestion from the U.S. Department of Education is “nudging” — a type of communication technique that could include “sending families a periodic postcard with student attendance records and/or encouragement to strive for consistent attendance to reduce absenteeism, or sending weekly updates on missed assignments or absences.”

I do think maybe sometimes parents don’t track the absences in their mind and could be surprised by the high number when confronted with it. Anecdotally, I know parents more often now take children out of school for vacations more than in the past. They should strive to do that as a last resort. My daughter had plenty of days off for us to plan family fun.

Education officials should delve into whether transportation shortages are causing some of these absences and make recommendations for lawmakers for the 2024 session. I think the state could also incentivize attendance with scholarships or grants. Everything should be on the table, even if it costs money.

Unfortunately, police and prosecutors also have a role to play. I couldn’t find data on whether law enforcement is focusing more or less on truancy, but there are laws regarding parental responsibility and they should be enforced.

School resource officers that already exist in many schools could be a place to start interacting with parents about attendance.

And all this should happen fast — before the learning losses compound even more.


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Niki Kelly
Niki Kelly

Niki has covered the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 – including five governors. She has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and Hoosier State Press Association for stories on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, criminal justice issues and more. She also is a regular on Indiana Week in Review, a weekly public television rundown of news. She shifts her career to helm a staff of three and ensure Hoosiers know what’s really happening on the state level.