Ohio schools struggle with chronic absenteeism during pandemic

February 27, 2022

by Megan Becker Anna Staver, Chillicothe Gazette

Includes reporting by Jennifer Pignolet of the Akron Beacon Journal, Kelli Weir of the Canton Repository, Madeline Mitchell of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Michael Lee of the Columbus Dispatch and Megan Becker of the Chillicothe Gazette.

On a frigid Wednesday morning in January, Len Dawson rapped on the door of a gray house in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.  

“Akron Public Schools,” he said in a voice loud enough to be heard through the door.  

Eventually, an 18-year-old popped his head out. “They’re real concerned because you have not been attending classes,” Dawson said.

The teen, from a Bhutanese immigrant family, said he’s had to prioritize work over school but agreed to call a district counselor. “If you need any help, maybe we can help you,” Dawson said. 

If no one answers the door when he visits a student’s home, Len Dawson of Akron Public Schools leaves a note at the door to put the parent or guardian in contact with student services.

The number of “address checks” Akron performs has more than doubled during the novel coronavirus pandemic. During the 2018-2019 school year, the district knocked on 829 doors. That number rose to 1,421 the following year and hit 2,582 for 2020-2021. 

The problem with absences isn’t just hitting Akron. 

Public schools across Ohio are grappling with significant increases in their chronically absent students. One in four K-12 students missed at least 10% of the school year in 2020-2021, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education. One in 10 missed more than 20%. 

The numbers were worse for the state’s most vulnerable children. 

Thirty-seven percent of economically disadvantaged students, 33% of students with disabilities and 47% of Black students were chronically absent last year. 

“I think absenteeism strikes at the core of receiving a quality education,” State Superintendent Stephanie Siddens said. ”Poor attendance is related to lower grades, lower scores on tests, lower graduation rates.”

Absenteeism in Chillicothe City Schools 

COVID-19 has “drastically” impacted attendance at Chillicothe City Schools said Aaron Brown, director of secondary education. He said that students miss school because they contracted the virus and they have to quarantine, but also if they had a possible exposure, meaning a student can miss a lot of school without ever being sick.

“When you put a kid in a position where they’re quarantined for up to 10 days, and in some cases… kids have been in quarantine two and three times because of contact tracing,” Brown said. “That can be very challenging for both the students and the teachers.”

Each day at school builds upon the next, so missing a couple days of school can put a student far behind their classmates. Chillicothe City Schools does their best to support students with emails and calls home to update the family on what was missed.

The district has integrated technology into the curriculum, which helps students stay on track, even if they can’t make it to class. 

All students 7th to 12th grade have Chromebooks provided by the school and many teachers use online platforms like Google Classroom for assignments. The district has given the students tools to communicate and work virtually with their teachers when they can’t be in-person.

The pandemic has also caused teachers, custodians, food service staff and bus drivers to take time away from work, putting a strain on the district. Brown said the district is fortunate to have so many great staff members, but there’s a need for more substitutes. 

On a few occasions, the district has had to cancel bus routes because a driver was unavailable. The school tries to notify students and parents as soon as possible that they will need to find alternative transportation.

Best case scenario, the student finds a ride and gets to school. Worst case scenario, the student needs to stay home that day. From there, the only thing the school can do is not count the absence.

Despite the attendance challenge that Chillicothe schools have faced, their attendance rates have remained steady the last three school years- 89% in the 2018-2019 school year, 92.8% in 2019-2020 and 89% so far in 2021-2022.

Brown said there have been significantly less absences in the last several weeks and attributes the change to declining COVID-19 cases. However, he also attributes the high attendance to district flexibility to work with students.

Although many absences are unavoidable, Chillicothe teachers have given incentives to students who come to school with attendance charts and contests.

The district also has an online option called the Chillicothe Online Digital Academy for students not prepared to come back to in-person learning. Students can enroll at the online academy at the beginning of each semester, so they can go back to in-person learning or vice versa at the end of the semester.

Brown said giving options to students has helped maintain attendance at Chillicothe City Schools.

How do we fix chronic absenteeism in schools? 

School attendance really came onto the radar of education officials after the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, University of Michigan professor Brian Jacob said. 

It was a natural evolution from test scores, in Jacob’s opinion, because the kids who score lower often struggle with attendance. 

“Even before we figure out if we should improve the curriculum, at the basic level you just have to get them in the building,” he said. 

To do that, schools have to figure out why their students aren’t coming to class. 

Researchers, including Jacob, categorize the causes into four basic groups:

Student specific – bullying, teen pregnancy, low academic performance.

Family specific – unstable housing, language barriers, need to work.

School specific – poor student-teacher interactions, lack of transportation.

Community specific – unsafe neighborhoods, jobs that don’t require education.

Then, they have to find a solution that works for the student’s specific situation. 

“I think it’s certainly more time intensive and expensive than an automated text reminder,” Jacob said.

What Ohio school districts are trying to keep students in school 

Delaware City Schools didn’t see an increase in chronically absent students during the pandemic. Its rate of 11.5% from the 2020-2021 school year was actually a little lower than the 11.7% it reported for 2018-2019.

Superintendent Heidi Kegley credited that success to her team of teachers, administrators, community partners and court liaison, Stacy Blair, who all work together on these cases. 

If a student misses the bus, Blair tells them to text her. Then, she sends a group text to the district’s volunteer drivers. She drives kids to school every week and so does Kegley. Teachers, principals and administrative assistants all help when they can. 

Blair has worked with area nonprofits and social services to find jobs, apartments and financial assistance for families in need. She’s created plans for students who will be in temporary foster care outside the district’s boundaries. She’s gone so far as handing out alarm clocks and teaching kids to set them across the room from their beds. 

“It’s not about placing blame or pointing fingers,” Kegley said. “It’s about problem-solving together.”

Northwest Local Schools, a district of roughly 1,760 students in Stark County, saw its chronic absenteeism rate improve during the pandemic as well. 

It had the lowest rate in the state with only 0.1% of its students missing 18 days or more of school.

The secret, according to school officials, was engagement.

Northwest High School students are paired with at least one adult they can depend on outside of the classroom and are involved in at least one extracurricular or co-curricular activity.

And the middle school places an emphasis on hiring teachers and staff who excel at connecting with kids.

“In the old days, everybody wanted teachers who were information experts but not now,” Northwest Middle School Principal Greg Ramos said. “It’s a positive connection at school that’s more likely to get (students) out of bed.”

COVID-19’s impact on absenteeism rates

The COVID-19 pandemic raised absenteeism rates for schools across the nation, Jacob said. 

“There was a once in a century global public health crisis,” he said. “It’s not hard not to understand why that impacted schools, but COVID has reminded people how big an issue absenteeism can be.”

The absenteeism rate at Columbus City Schools hit 74% for the 2020-2021 school year. 

Machelle Kline, chief student services officer at Columbus schools, said that just in general, “large urban school districts do traditionally have a higher chronic absenteeism rate” than suburban districts. 

That’s partly because they serve more economically disadvantaged students who are more likely to struggle with issues like housing insecurity and unsafe neighborhoods.

“Ohio is not unique in that trend,” said Brittany Miracle, an assistant director at the state education department who focuses on attendance. ”The barriers to attendance are correlated with poverty.”

And those barriers were exacerbated by the pandemic. 

“There are situations where kids had to go live with a grandparent because their parents were forced to work or are forced to work in a remote setting …,” Kline said. “Sometimes we found the kids in shelters, other times we found out kids had moved or went to a grandparent’s or aunt’s or uncle’s house in another district.”

Columbus had family ambassadors at almost every school making around 500 calls a week. 

“We didn’t give up easily,” Kline said. “But there were some children that we just could not find.”

Missing kids weren’t the only attendance problem districts faced.

Quarantine rules pushed hundreds of students in Cincinnati Public Schools into the chronically absent category because Ohio uses both excused and unexcused absences in its definition. 

The district’s rate rose from 37% pre-pandemic to 47% for the 2020-2021 academic year. 

“When students either tested positive for COVID-19 or were in close contact, they were required to isolate or quarantine for a minimum of 10 days,” said Carrie Bunger, Cincinnati’s director of positive school culture and safety. ”Those 10 days are counted toward the increased chronic absenteeism rate, even though those absences were considered excused.”

One way Delaware helped its quarantined students was through an online academy staffed by district teachers. 

“It allowed for that seamless transition back and forth,” Delaware Assistant Superintendent Craig Heath said. ”Those teachers are all on the same team.”

How the state can help

Delaware’s approach to online learning might work in other districts, and the Ohio Department of Education has just the person to help them share that idea. 

The state created a full-time position dedicated to lowering absenteeism rates in March 2021. 

The attendance advisor fields phone calls from parents who have trouble understanding the law, makes presentations to juvenile courts about Ohio’s data on truancy cases and connects different districts to share their solutions. 

Ohio also changed the way it will count absences from days to cumulative hours. The switch helps districts capture kids who might be attending school regularly but consistently missing their first-period classes. 

Akron, Delaware, Northwest and Columbus have all made this switch. 

Ohio also has billions of federal COVID-19 relief dollars to spend on public schools. 

“I feel like there is a lot of underway,” state superintendent Siddens said. “Emergency relief funds are designed to help address these very needs.”

Schools can use the money for wraparound services like counseling, expand their free breakfast and lunch programs, summer classes, tutors, online learning and more. 

State lawmakers recently approved $7 million for a statewide contract with a company called Graduation Alliance that promised to engage with 75,000 chronically absent students and support 25,000 others. 

”(Chronic absenteeism) is incredibly concerning,” Siddens said. “But I’m optimistic about the work schools are doing.”

Megan Becker is a reporter for the Chillicothe Gazette. She can be reached at 740-349-1106, email her at mbecker@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @BeckerReporting