BOSTON (SHNS) – Chronic absenteeism in Massachusetts public schools grew by 72 percent between 2019 and 2023, new data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show, and the state education commissioner on Tuesday called for an “all hands on deck” approach to address the issue.
All grades have absenteeism rates well above pre-pandemic levels, though elementary schools have been hit the hardest. Among younger students, the rate of those missing more than 10 percent of class time, the chronic absenteeism threshold, has more than doubled since before the pandemic.
“The break in routine of school-going culture during the pandemic is the root cause of the problem,” DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley said at a Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.
He acknowledged that students miss days when they are sick, and often miss significant time when they are out with COVID-19.
By the end of the school year, a student is deemed chronically absent if they miss 18 days of the 180-day school year. But in October, when there has only been about 40 days of school, a student could fall under the designation only from having missed four days, which could happen if they were out sick for a week or observed certain religious holidays.
“Our definition of 10 percent of absenteeism is not random. There’s a reason for that, it’s because studies have pretty clearly shown that by the time you’ve missed 10 percent of your schooling you are going to experience academic impacts, in addition to all the other losses,” board member Michael Moriarty said. “Families could work very hard to get absences excused every chance they get, but that doesn’t lessen the academic outcome.”
Riley said he is launching an awareness campaign for an “all hands on deck” approach to the issue, which includes over $4 million to districts to better track attendance and provide students opportunities to make up work they missed while they were out.
Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler will be featured in a commercial to help inform parents about the issue, Riley said.
Despite the still-high rates of students missing school, attendance has improved since the pandemic’s peak. Citing an EdWeek statistic, Riley said that among the 11 states with data available from the 2022-2023 school year, Massachusetts had the most significant drop in absenteeism from around 28 percent to 22 percent.
Broken up by grade span, elementary students’ absenteeism grew by 103 percent from 2019 — with 10 percent of students missing significant amounts of school before COVID compared to 20.3 percent in 2023. In middle/high schools the percent change was less dramatic, though the total percent of students behind in attendance is much higher. In 2019, 22 percent of students were considered chronically absent, compared to 32.2 percent this year — a 46 percent increase.
Still, attendance has improved from last year.
Chronic absenteeism dropped in elementary schools from 25.5 percent in 2022 to 20.3 percent this year, in middle schools from 25 percent to 20 percent, and in high schools from 35.1 percent to 29.9 percent.
Board members were supportive of Riley’s announcement that the department is planning to call attention to attendance issues.
Schools have often thought of attendance as something largely outside of educators’ control, thinking that responsibility lies with families and communities, said board member Martin West, a professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“We’ve also seen in the past decade the emergence of a lot of research showing that what schools do really does matter for attendance, the way in which they communicate with families,” West said. “Oftentimes parents think absence is much more common and that their student is more typical than is actually the case, and correcting those perceptions can be powerful.”