WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
The pandemic in the U.S. seems to have ended. It’s time to move forward to new stories. However, there are several post-pandemic outcomes that are manifesting in our lives and deserve a second look.
The major post-pandemic education story this week is that of public-school attendance. Or, as it turns out, absenteeism.
A New York Times’ September 5, 2023, edition headline asks the question “Where Are the Students?”
The Economist headline for April 24, 2023, speaks volumes: “Post-covid, American children are still missing far too much school.”
National Public Radio’s All Things Considered episode for March 2, 2023, tells us that it’s been three years since the pandemic wrecked attendance, but “kids still aren’t showing up to school.”
After more than 58 million American K to 12 age students spent the better part of 2+ years “schooling from home,” many parents have shifted their students from brick-and-mortar education models to a full -time homeschool experience. For the most part, kids didn’t “like” Zoom-style school because they missed their friends and school and extra-curricular activities. But one thing they did learn is that school can be successfully accomplished in a better way than the traditional dawn-to-late afternoon grinder they had become accustomed to.
One young man who is a freshman in high school told me that “Going to school every day is not important. I can go there 3 or 4 days a week and still get good grades.” A girl in her junior year echoed the same attitude: “It’s not necessary to get up before dark in the winter and go to school every day of the week. I can skip 2 days a week and still get A’s.”
A September 5, 2023, Scripps News story looked at the pros and cons of going to school five days a week. The story reported that “a recent analysis from the research organization Rand Corporation, found the benefits come with some trade-offs.”
“RAND found among some of the smaller districts that have employed four-day weeks, a greater satisfaction among parents. The organization also found that the added weekend day gave children more time with families. But the trade-off, according to RAND, was that test scores in math and English did not improve at the same rate as those attending schools with five-day weeks.”
Overall, the pandemic seems to have permanently increased public school truancy rates. Some researchers are even suggesting that public school attendance has become “optional” for a growing number of students.
According to the August 22, 2023, Washington Post, “chronic absenteeism (when a student misses more than 10 percent of school days for any reason) surged nationally during the pandemic.” And the numbers are not improving post-pandemic.
National Public Radio cites that, before the pandemic, upwards of 8 million students were considered to be “chronically absent.” This number doubled to about 16 million by the spring of 2022 when most public schools had re-opened.
In response, many public schools have announced initiatives to tackle a rise in chronic student absenteeism that has grown astronomically since the onset of the pandemic.
WHY ALL THE EMPTY SEATS?
Pandemic-related public-school closures were the most dramatic disruption that has ever occurred in U.S. modern education. Now that COVID is no longer dominating our everyday lives, absenteeism has soared.
If you’re a kid, you know what a pain it is to leave the house before 8AM and drag yourself to school every day. During COVID lockdowns, the “drag” was only from your bed to perhaps the living room or dining room where you would log into Zoom or some other virtual education provider, turn on your camera (at least until roll call was over), and then either resign yourself to slogging through the virtual day or turn off your camera and take a nap. Teachers repeatedly reported the problem of kids not turning on their cameras. One teacher I watched on YouTube said “Today was a great success. Four of my students turned on their cameras.”
The problem was that, since the first American public school was initiated in Boston in 1635, going to school was the “normal” thing to do. Until it wasn’t.
Pandemic school closures absolutely changed the way most students and parents think about school.
Thomas Dee, a Stanford economist who has completed a comprehensive study of the “empty seat syndrome” (my term), said that he is “just stunned by the magnitude” [of the absenteeism problem in America].
LOSING THE HABIT
Unfortunately, students have not yet recovered the academic ground they lost during the pandemic. It goes without saying that it’s impossible for them to catch up if they’re not in the classroom.
Thomas Dee’s study looked for explanations for chronic absenteeism in all the usual data-based places. But the answer was not consistent and often made no sense. He ended up concluding that “The biggest reason for the rise seems to be simply that students have fallen out of the habit of going to school every day.”
Elmer Rolden, who runs an active dropout prevention program, told the Los Angeles Times that “for almost two years we told families that school can look different, and that schoolwork could be accomplished in times outside of the traditional 8-to-3 day. Turns out families believed that and got used to it.”
Hedy Chang runs a non-profit group focused on the problems of chronic absenteeism. Ms. Chang told the Associated Press that “, “The long-term consequences of disengaging from school will be devastating.”
WHAT DO EMPTY SEATS MEAN TO HOMESCHOOLING?
When homeschooling parents cite the problems in public schools that are avoided if they school their children at home, numerous issues arise: the unhealthy early start times for many high schools; political fights over curriculum; bullying and vaping; and the inequalities that damage so many areas of life in America.
All of these issues can be alleviated or eliminated when students are homeschooled.
Nonetheless, some scholars claim that school absenteeism might increase and be maintained during homeschooling, while others argue that homeschooling may reduce student anxiety associated with school attendance.
What appears to be true is that absenteeism is often not a problem in a homeschool atmosphere. Later morning start times, flexible instructional hours, student input into curriculum planning, increased opportunities for learning experiences outside the “normal” school day and an increase in one-on-one modeling and mentoring time all tend to engage students in a way that often cannot be accomplished in a public-school atmosphere.