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Which students missed class during COVID-19? We asked. And, schools don’t know.

If schools are to have any hope of catching kids up from COVID absences, they’ll need to know who missed the most school during the pandemic--and why.

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Masked-up students at Belvedere Elementary School in West Palm Beach Aug. 10, the first day of the school year.
Masked-up students at Belvedere Elementary School in West Palm Beach Aug. 10, the first day of the school year. Lannis Waters, (LANNIS WATERS / THE PALM BEACH

It's the top challenge for schools welcoming students back this fall: what to do about all the children who missed huge chunks of class time, whether in person or from home, during the pandemic. 

Yet 17 months after the coronavirus first swept the nation, few of America’s largest districts can provide a clear picture of which students fall  into that category – raising questions about whether schools are ready for the challenge of catching students up and preparing them for adulthood.

It's crucially important that schools grasp which students were missing: Research suggests children who are chronically absent – meaning they miss at least 10% of a given school year – are at risk of eventually dropping out. 

USA TODAY reached out to a sampling of school districts, including the country’s 10 largest before the pandemic upended enrollment, requesting data on students who were chronically absent during the past three school years. We were seeking to study missing kids by characteristics such as race, gender and disability status – student information that districts are supposed to track for the federal government. 

Which schools we asked:
  • Broward County Public Schools (FL)
  • Chicago Public Schools (IL)
  • Clark County School District (NV)
  • Dearborn Public Schools (MI)
  • Detroit Public Schools Community District (MI)
  • Flagler County Schools (FL)
  • Hillsborough County Public Schools (FL)
  • Houston Independent School District (TX)
  • Jefferson County Public Schools (KY)
  • Knoxville County Schools (TN)
  • Los Angeles Unified School District (CA)
  • Miami-Dade County Public Schools (FL)
  • Metro Nashville Public Schools (TN)
  • New York City Department of Education (NY)
  • Orange County Public Schools (FL)
  • The School District of Palm Beach County (FL)
  • Utica Community Schools (MI)
  • Volusia County Schools (FL)

But schools couldn't – or wouldn't – specify which groups of kids missed huge portions of school, or for how long.

They can't find those kids, either: The quest for America's missing kids

Of the 18 districts, just three – Palm Beach County in Florida, Clark County in Nevada and Nashville in Tennessee – provided detailed absence data from all three years. Clark County, which comprises Las Vegas and neighboring cities, and Nashville were the only districts that provided every data point USA TODAY requested.

Some schools sent attendance statistics but didn’t break down the data by student characteristics or provide chronic absence numbers for all three years. One district – Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky – provided detailed data on students' "participation," a metric that's similar to attendance but includes activities such as turning in an assignment. Others said they’d have to charge USA TODAY upward of $1,000 each for the records, indicating the data analysis we requested didn’t already exist.

Several, including the New York City Department of Education and Los Angeles Unified School District, said they needed more time to fulfill the requests; more than three months later, they have yet to do so.

Federal law requires schools to publish detailed chronic absenteeism data as part of their annual report cards. Most states take that reporting a step further and hold themselves accountable for chronic absences, pledging to tackle any gaps revealed by that data.

But during the pandemic, such accountability took a backseat – just nine states included chronic absenteeism data in their 2019-20 report cards, according to the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit. Among them was Connecticut, where chronic absenteeism increased from 12% to more than 20% in 2020-21. 

Attendance is a key predictor of student success, studies show, its impact lasting a lifetime. Missing school can hamper a child’s ability to read by the third grade and, eventually, to graduate on time – if ever. One study found a student who is chronically absent at any point between grades eight and 12 is seven times more likely to drop out of school than their peers with good attendance. 

The problem tends to be most severe among children who already face countless barriers to academic success. Pre-pandemic, children living in poverty were at least twice as likely as their more affluent peers to be chronically absent – a ratio that has grown since schools first closed their doors last spring. Notably, many states have identified kids who miss school as a key priority in their spending proposals under the American Rescue Plan, which includes a record $122 billion in stimulus money for schools.

If districts are to have any hope of minimizing achievement gaps and catching kids up, they’ll need to know who missed the most school during the pandemic – and why. 

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In two districts, gaps by race and gender

In two districts, gaps by race and gender

The pandemic attendance data USA TODAY did receive largely echoes what the research says about kids who miss school. There were large disparities between white and Asian students and their Black, Hispanic and Native American counterparts. Homeless students disengaged from school at high rates, as did students with disabilities. 

But zoom in on each school district – Clark County, Palm Beach and Nashville – and new patterns emerge.

In Nevada, the Clark County School District serves more than 300,000 students, most of whom are children of color and receive free or reduced-price meals. As with districts across the country, absences in the Las Vegas area surged once the pandemic hit. In the 2018-19 school year, 19% of students overall were chronically absent; by late this spring, that figure grew to an average of 33%.

The increase was far more dramatic for some groups than it was for others, however. The rate among both Hispanic students and English learners, for example, nearly doubled – close to 40% of children in each group were chronically absent as of late last spring, up from less than 20% two years prior. 

For other groups, chronic absences approached – if not surpassed – 50% during the pandemic. Among American Indian or Alaska Native students, for example, chronic absenteeism soared to 48% on average last school year. For students identified as homeless, it shot up to 51%.

Similar disparities were at play in Palm Beach County, whose school district serves roughly 170,000 students, a majority of whom are children of color and receive free or reduced-price meals. (Palm Beach County broke down its absences data by fewer demographic factors than Clark County or Nashville.)

In Palm Beach County, the attendance gaps between white students and their nonwhite peers grew substantially. The district's data show an uptick in absences among Black and Hispanic students between 2018-19 and 2019-20 while attendance for white students, at least on paper, improved. English learners went from having some of the best attendance in 2018-19 to some of the worst during the pandemic. 

Another absenteeism gap that grew in Palm Beach County was that between girls and boys. For some age groups, that gap more than doubled during the pandemic. The gender disparities were particularly large among Black students and English learners. 

At the high school level, for example, 12% of the district’s Black male students were chronically absent as of late this spring, compared with 9% of their female counterparts. 

Metro Nashville Public Schools also saw a widening gap between girls' and boys' absences. In 2018-19, 16% of boys and girls each were chronically absent; two years later, the rate shot up to 31% for boys and 27% for girls. 

Disparities between white students and those of color grew, too: Absence rates nearly doubled for Black, Hispanic and Native American students between 2018-19 and 2020-21, and nearly tripled for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, while they hardly budged for their white peers. The district serves more than 80,000 students, most of whom are children of color and a little less than half of whom are economically disadvantaged.

The mystery of keeping attendance during online school

The mystery of keeping attendance during online school

Figuring out which students went missing during the pandemic, or where absences were the worst, is tricky. Each state, or in some cases each district, came up with its own way of tracking attendance. Compounding matters is that attendance became hard to define once schools went remote.  

Pre-pandemic, tracking attendance was pretty straightforward. If a student showed up in class, they were marked as present. With the pandemic-era shift to distance learning, districts adjusted – and in many cases loosened – their criteria for attendance, often in accordance with state directives. Students may have been marked as present as long as they – or their parents – had at least one interaction with a teacher; in California, for example, even a text exchange counted. 

Because of the new attendance guidelines, the data come with lots of caveats. Take Clark County. Evidence shows students who stuck with online-only learning were more likely to disengage from school than those who had some in-person instruction. But the Nevada district’s numbers paint a different picture. There, at least according to the district’s data, students who opted for some in-person learning were slightly more likely to be chronically absent during the 2020-21 school year than students who chose distance-only education.

The district’s data suggest chronic absenteeism shrank in the 2019-20 year even though the second semester’s disruptions likely resulted in unprecedented levels of disengagement from school. 

When the pandemic first hit, Clark County was focused on triage, explained Jesus Jara, the district’s superintendent – getting children fed and connected to the internet. Data collection fell to the wayside. 

As the pandemic wore on, Jara said, the district adjusted its criteria for attendance. Initially, students were marked as present if they logged onto class at least once weekly. “As soon as we connected everybody, … teachers would have to check in with kids" every day, Jara said. 

Last school year, distance-only learners were counted as present if they attended a real-time class session, completed coursework for a class that met that day and/or interacted with a teacher.

Palm Beach County saw similar aberrations in pandemic-era absence data. On paper, absences were significantly lower this past year – when roughly 2 in 3 students started off with distance-only instruction – than in 2018-19. Florida was one of two states that didn’t provide its school districts any guidance on how to track attendance. (Palm Beach County schools did not respond to numerous requests for comment.)

The adjustments to attendance practices are understandable; school and life had been upended.

But the messy, inconsistent methods schools settled on almost certainly obscured a true understanding of how many children went missing from school. And those methods could end up hampering schools' efforts to support students as classes restart. 

One survey by Attendance Works, a national nonprofit that studies and seeks to reduce chronic absence, found as many as 19 states weren’t even tracking daily attendance last fall. 

“Attendance during remote learning was very broad-ranging,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works. “It’s an art to understand and interpret this stuff because it’s all over the place.” 

Why attendance data even matters

Why attendance data even matters

The factors behind chronic absence are complex. A student may miss school because she lacks transportation or stable housing. She may choose not to attend because she’s being unfairly disciplined by a teacher or bullied by a classmate. Perhaps she feels there isn’t a point to logging on because the learning material is irrelevant. 

Which is why, despite all the caveats, detailed data is so critical. It can reveal where attendance gaps exist and help districts identify what kind of outreach is needed. If a district notices a spike in absences among Black boys, for example, it can task educators with figuring out what’s behind the trend and developing strategies to tackle it. 

“It allows you to see when there may be … systematic challenges and barriers that are affecting a particular group of students,” Chang said. “Part of the value of chronic absence and attendance data is that it can give you real-time information about whether you’re losing kids before they’ve missed so much instructional time that they need remediation.” 

Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works
When you don’t have accurate information taken daily, you tend not to act on time, and the issues compound.

“When you don’t have accurate information taken daily,” she said, “you tend not to act on time, and the issues compound.”

Jara recognizes the importance of that real-time data and said Clark County came up with a targeted approach to address disparities in its students’ attendance. Spanish-speaking educators visited English learners in their homes, for example, while other educators engaged in regular wellness checks with Black, Native American and Pacific Islander students – children who, the district’s data show, disconnected from school at higher rates than their peers. “What the pandemic has done is it has really amplified the inequities in public education,” Jara said. 

Demographic breakdowns are especially valuable because data for student populations as a whole tend to “mask the true depth of the problem,” said Emily Bailard, CEO of EveryDay Labs, an organization that partners with districts to reduce chronic absences. 

Bailard recently worked with FutureEd, a Georgetown University-based education think tank, to analyze pandemic attendance trends in five unnamed school districts that serve nearly 450,000 students total. 

Each of those five districts actually reported an increase in the number of students with perfect attendance. In some cases, the perfect attendance rate doubled.

Affluent, white students could account for much of that improvement, Bailard suggested, perhaps because they faced fewer barriers to attendance once school went remote. They could still log onto class virtually even if they were sick, for example, or missed the bus. 

But for other students, the barriers grew exponentially. Maybe they didn’t have internet or a device; maybe they needed to care for their siblings or work. Maybe they were grieving a loss due to COVID-19, which was twice as likely to have struck in a Black, Hispanic and Native American family, CDC data show. 

This widening gap was evident in the FutureEd report, which found a sevenfold increase in the number of students missing at least 50% of the school year during the pandemic. Children living in poverty, English language learners and students with disabilities struggled with some of the highest rates of missing school. The researchers also found a sharp increase in absences among young children.

‘That’s just not realistic’

‘That’s just not realistic’

In an ideal world, Bailard said, teachers, principals and other on-the-ground educators would be the ones tracking absences and other risk factors. They'd use that data to identify which students are struggling most and intervene accordingly. 

In reality, though, those educators are stretched too thin to respond to the data in a meaningful, timely way – to download and analyze attendance reports on a daily basis, a process that can take hours. "They spend the whole day on the go," Bailard said. "For them to go into a data system, pull a report and then download and parse through it, that's just not realistic." Nor is it realistic for teachers to then reach out to each missing student. 

Clark County School District, for its part, is bringing all of its schools onto a single learning platform, making it easier to track and analyze attendance data. “If we don’t see (students), we don’t know what’s happening with them,” Jara said, noting that children’s mental health is his top priority. 

States can – and are encouraged to – use some of their education recovery money to support students who were chronically absent during the pandemic. But that money has an expiration date. Schools must be strategic in how they spend the money, experts say, especially if their attendance data paint too rosy a picture of students' engagement last year.

Fourth grade students listen to their teacher, Syrenthia Boldin, on the first day of school at the Pahokee Elementary International Baccalaureate World School on Aug. 10 in Florida.
Fourth grade students listen to their teacher, Syrenthia Boldin, on the first day of school at the Pahokee Elementary International Baccalaureate World School on Aug. 10 in Florida. Greg Lovett, The Palm Beach Post

Some research shows starting a peer-mentoring program can significantly improve attendance. One study on Peer Group Connection, which pairs students who are transitioning into middle or high school with an upper-class student, increased participants’ attendance by as many as eight days. A separate study on the program found it had a particularly positive impact on boys’ achievement. Overall, the graduation rate of program participants was 9 percentage points higher than it was for non-participants; for boys, the graduation rate was 18 percentage points higher.

Overall, schools must ensure they are places children want to be. Poor school infrastructure is associated with increased absences, for instance, as are punitive truancy policies

“Kids show up … to school when they have hope for a different future – when they have faith that school is the place where they can achieve that different future,” Chang said. 

Contributing: Matt Wynn, USA TODAY; Cassidy Alexander, Daytona Beach News Journal; Lily Altavena, Detroit Free Press; Olivia Krauth, Louisville Courier-Journal; Isabel Lohman, Knoxville News Sentinel; Meghan Mangrum, Tennessean

This story was produced as part of the Brechner Reporting Fellowship at the University of Florida's Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. 

Early childhood education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from Save the Children. Save the Children does not provide editorial input.

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