Chronic absenteeism increased in many school districts across the area, both private and public, after students returned for the 2020-2021 school year.
Statewide, the Ohio Department of Education calculated the chronic absenteeism rate jumped to 24% in 2020-2021, the most recent school year for which there is data. That’s up from 11% in 2019-2020. In 2018-2019, the school year prior to the beginning of the pandemic, Ohio’s chronic absentee rate was 17%, according to ODE.
Chronic absenteeism is defined by the Ohio Department of Education as any student missing at least 10% of school days for any reason.
Schools that saw increases in chronic absenteeism cited students ill from COVID-19 as part of the issue, but some large districts also had students move, drop out or gain additional responsibilities, like taking care of younger siblings as child care became scarcer.
The increase in chronic absenteeism comes as schools are already worried about learning loss after the pandemic forced districts into virtual learning in March 2020. Some schools didn’t return to in-person learning until after vaccines were widely available last spring.
According to an Ohio State University study from August 2021, Ohio students who attended virtual school in the 2020 school year missed the equivalent of a half to a full year in math, and between one-third and one-half of a year in language arts, depending on the grade level. The study looked at the results of state-mandated testing.
On average across Montgomery, Greene, Warren, Butler and Clark County public and private schools that report their absentee data to the state, the chronic absentee rate was even higher than the state average: 27% in 2020-2021; 18% in 2019-2020 and 25% in 2018-2019. Officials are worried this year’s trends might be similar, though data hasn’t been published yet.
That means students who aren’t attending fall further and further behind, said Elizabeth Lolli, Dayton Public Schools superintendent. Teachers can hold students after class to help them, she said, but often that doesn’t make up for missing the discussion the class had and the original lesson.
“It interrupts your learning and causes you to fall further behind,” Lolli said. “In the end, when you fall behind, it’s much, much harder to catch up.”
Suburban public school districts generally have lower rates of chronic absenteeism. But some of those schools, particularly Beavercreek and Bethel Local schools, saw increases in their chronic absenteeism rates, according to state data analyzed by the Dayton Daily News.
In Beavercreek, the chronic absentee rate jumped from 4% in 2019-2020 to more than 16% in the 2020-2021 school year. Bethel Local saw an even greater jump — from less than 3% in 2019-2020 to nearly 18% in 2020-2021.
Both districts had chronic absentee rates of between 6% and 8% between the 2017-2018 school year and 2018-2019 school year, according to ODE data.
Both Bethel Local and Beavercreek cited COVID-19 illnesses and exposed students quarantining as the primary factor for the absences.
Bethel Local Schools Superintendent Justin M. Firks cited the changes in quarantine guidance and the decline in cases numbers as the primary reasons more kids are now back in school.
“The more students are at school, the more engaged they are in the learning process,” Firks said. “Student engagement results in student success and ultimately student achievement.”
Jeff Madden, director of student services at Beavercreek City Schools, said the district has added social workers and resiliency counselors to help students who might have mental health struggles, and extra tutors for kids who fell behind.
Huber Heights also saw increased chronic absentee rates, though at less than Beavercreek and Bethel Local.
Huber Heights’ rate was about 16% in 2018-2018, then dropped in 2019-2020 to about 9%. But that rose to nearly 25% in 2020-2021. Cassie Dietrich, district spokeswoman, said factors around the pandemic have contributed to kids not coming to school.
Kids whose parents are sick might not have a way to get to school, she said. Remote learning has also been difficult as some families don’t have the means to have students learn online for an entire day.
“We have addressed internet and technology needs, and done our best to provide all the resources we can, but ultimately, some students are unable to log on for synchronous remote learning,” she said.
‘A culture of good attendance’
One Montgomery County traditional public school district hasn’t seen the increases in chronic absenteeism that other districts have: Kettering.
The district had about a 7% chronic absenteeism rate in both school years 2018-2019 and 2017-2018. In 2019-2020, the absenteeism rate dropped to about 5% , and remained about the same in 2020-2021.
Kettering had a mask mandate for most of the school year, and Kettering zip codes have some of the highest rates of vaccination in Montgomery County, according to a Dayton Daily News investigation from early February. But other schools, like Oakwood and Centerville, that also had mask mandates and had high rates of vaccination in their zip codes, did not see a similar drop in chronic absenteeism.
Kari Basson, Kettering’s spokeswoman, cited a policy that began before the pandemic and emphasized attending school.
“We feel that this culture of ‘good attendance’ that had really begun to take hold when the governor closed schools in March of 2020 is one factor that has contributed to the district’s ability to keep kids engaged and in school as we all navigated through the height of the pandemic in the 2020-2021 school year,” she said.
Students’ ability to come into school while most were doing virtual learning may also have contributed, Basson said. Kettering had small pods for elementary school students to work together on virtual learning with adult staff if their parents were working, though that later expanded to include any student struggling with online learning, Basson said. “Quiet learning spaces,” a similar concept for middle school students and high school students, were also available.
When the school moved to hybrid learning — some students learning remotely while others came into school — students in-person were dismissed one hour early every day and everyone did remote learning for the second semester of the 2020-2021 school year.
“This allowed teachers the time to connect one-on-one or in small groups with their students who were doing remote learning and to see if they needed any extra support,” Basson said.
Mason schools in Warren County also saw a drop in chronic absenteeism between the 2019-2020 school year and the 2020-2021 school year, from about 10% to about 3%. In 2018-2019, their chronic absentee rate was 7%.
Dayton Public’s chronic absentee rate last school year was about 53%, higher than any other area public school except for Springfield, which was 58%. Compared to the largest school districts in the state, Dayton Public School’s chronic absentee rates are in the middle. Akron City had the lowest chronic absenteeism rate last school year, at 26%, but Columbus City Schools had the highest, at nearly 75%.
According to ODE’s data, Black students, Hispanic students, economically disadvantage students and English as a second language students were significantly more at-risk for chronic absenteeism. Black students’ chronic absentee rate last school year across the state was 47%, according to ODE.
After the school district went virtual in 2020, Lolli said many students suddenly disappeared. Those students might have withdrawn from school or moved. The district is working to take students off its rolls who are no longer enrolled, and Lolli believes students who haven’t yet been taken off and are marked absent daily are partly to blame for its high absenteeism.
DPS also began offering prizes to some students , particularly in northwest Dayton schools. Students in the northwest schools who come to school for two weeks with no office referrals are eligible for a $25 gift card, and parents with students who have perfect attendance for a month are eligible for a $40 gift card. The district has a program coming up in March to incentivize attendance with prizes, too, Lolli said.
In a 2019 survey of DPS students, Lolli said high schoolers indicated they weren’t coming to school because they didn’t have reliable transportation, didn’t have clean uniforms or might have had their water cut off.
The district now has universal busing, clean uniforms and shoes available at all buildings and locker room showers open. Food pantries are also available to all Dayton Public families, Lolli said.
Problems still need to be overcome. Lolli said there’s no immediate solution to older siblings caring for younger siblings, which sometimes the district doesn’t even know about unless a student tells a teacher or administrator.
“The children are worth whatever effort we have to put into it. It’s just that sometimes we can’t find a fast solution, and that’s what’s frustrating,” Lolli said.