Chronic absenteeism increased in Anchorage schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and has stayed high, a trend that is being seen nationally and is prompting concern among school officials.
The Anchorage School District defines chronic absenteeism as students who are missing an average of two or more days of school each month, or more than 10% of the school year.
A decade ago in Anchorage, only about a quarter of students were considered chronically absent, according to a district report.
During the 2021-22 school year, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 47% of students were chronically absent, district data shows. Last year, that percentage had improved slightly to 43%. The latest numbers for the current school year follow similar trends. The school district was unable to provide percentages for the years just before the pandemic.
Chronic absenteeism is a metric many school districts follow closely because it’s linked to poor academic outcomes and other challenges for students, like an increased risk of dropping out or not learning how to read, according to Chris Opitz, senior director of assessment and evaluation with the school district.
“We know that when students are absent more than 10% of the time, they tend to struggle more,” Opitz said. “Their grade point averages go down. They might struggle with credits, they might have a more difficult time learning to read. Graduation rates go down.”
While two days a month might seem like a small number, it can add up to a whole year of missed school by the time they graduate, said Likka McCauley, a program director and former principal in the district. When it comes to attendance, trends matter: Occasionally missing a few days for illness or travel is different from consistently missing multiple days each month, she said.
The district in the past aimed for 90% of students attending class 90% of the time — a goal that it’s currently falling short of by a significant margin. “90 by 90″ is no longer an official goal, because the district believed that language was confusing, according to Opitz.
“We definitely want our students to attend school 90% of the time or more,” he said. “And many are not.”
Officials said that they’re making a concerted effort to track individual schools’ and students’ attendance trends, so that they can follow up when students are regularly missing class.
“When principals and teachers start to notice patterns, that’s when they’re reaching out to families, helping kids build connections and generally checking in to find out what’s going on, and how to support them,” Opitz said.
While schools nationwide are facing similar issues, the issue is especially acute in Alaska. By 2021-22, chronic absenteeism had grown in every state, but Alaska reported the highest rate in the nation, according to an investigation by the Associated Press.
Statewide, during the 2018-19 school year, just under a third of Alaska students were chronically absent. By 2021-22, nearly half were, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
Researchers, as part of the AP investigation, attributed the problem nationally to multiple factors, including financial struggles at home, illness, transportation challenges, staff shortages and worsening mental health among students.
In Anchorage, school officials attribute the rise in chronically absent students to changes in habits and routines during the pandemic, when students were home much more due to virus mitigation efforts that included virtual learning for an extended period of time.
“My guess is that patterns just got severely disrupted,” said Andy Holleman, an Anchorage School Board member.
“School looked really different during that time,” Opitz said. “Our habits and routines changed. Now, we are all really making a concerted effort to sort of build back our muscle memory around coming to school every day.”
The National Center for Education Statistics has specifically called out chronic absenteeism as a factor in declining math proficiency scores nationwide. Math scores were down last year in Alaska compared to what they were pre-pandemic.
School district officials said they’re working on recognizing schools and students who are doing well with attendance while also trying to educate families about the importance of regularly showing up to class.
Holleman said addressing poor attendance at the board level is difficult because the reasons why students miss school are so varied. And flat funding at the state level makes it difficult to implement different programs or positions that could address the problem, he said.
“It’s a big concern,” he said. “The board’s aware of it, and worried about it. But with so many constraints around the budget, we are limited with what we can do about it.”
The school district tracks monthly chronic absenteeism rates as part of an online dashboard that breaks up those numbers by individual schools, grades and other factors like race and ethnicity.
That data shows disparities in who is missing the most school: Homeless youths had the highest chronically absent rate of any group, which McCauley attributed to transportation and other barriers. Seniors in high school missed more school than any other grade; Alaska Native and Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students missed more school than their peers.
“The main thing that I would want parents to know is students who show up and attend regularly are much more likely to become proficient readers. They’re much more likely to feel connected and happy at school,” Opitz said. “They’re much more likely to graduate. There’s so many positives.”