Most school districts in Alaska saw a spike in chronic absenteeism during the COVID-19 pandemic that has been slow to rebound in the years since, according to data from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
Deena Bishop, Alaska’s education commissioner, said this week that she believes the rise in absenteeism is a result of a change in routines brought on by the pandemic, when students were kept at home much more as part of virus mitigation efforts.
Bishop, who served as superintendent of the Anchorage School District during much of that period, expressed regret over the amount of time students spent remote learning during the pandemic.
She described lasting impacts that she believes those years out of the classroom have had on students’ sense of connection to their school communities and to learning.
“We did a disservice to our young people,” she said. “We created habits, and we created the sense that, maybe you don’t have to be present and engaged to learn and to do school. And now, we should not be surprised that some of them are not connected.”
Chronic absenteeism is a national metric that is defined as students who are missing an average of two or more days of school each month — or more than 10% of the school year.
While schools nationwide are facing similar issues, chronic absenteeism appears to be an especially acute problem in Alaska.
Over the last five years, nearly every school district in Alaska saw a significant spike in the number of students regularly missing large amounts of school compared to five years ago — some by more than double.
Educators across the state have expressed concern about the trend, noting that missing that much school has been linked to poor academic outcomes, including a risk of dropping out and poorer math and reading skills.
In Juneau, school district superintendent Frank Hauser set up an attendance task force this year to address chronic absenteeism, a spokesperson for the district said in an email.
Last school year brought a slight decline in absenteeism districtwide, though rates were still well below pre-pandemic averages, Juneau School District data showed.
“We’re moving in the right direction, but there’s still work to be done,” Kristin Bartlett, chief of staff with the Juneau School District, wrote in the email.
Bishop said habit-setting is especially important for younger children, who are developing critical reading and life skills.
“Early on in a child’s education, when those habits are set, it’s imperative that our young children are getting those skills needed,” she said. “In kindergarten through third grade, you’re learning to read, and then you use that skill to learn everything else.”
In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, during the 2017-18 school year, just a quarter of students were chronically absent. By the 2021-22 school year, that number had risen to half.
Proportionally similar increases in absenteeism were reported in districts around the state, including in Juneau, Ketchikan, Valdez, Anchorage and Wrangell.
In Bristol Bay, that rate increased from about 29% of the student body during the 2018-19 school year to over 63% of students during the 2021-22 school year.
Shannon Harvilla, principal with the Bristol Bay Borough School District, said that he also thought that the rise could be attributed to a change in habits brought on by the pandemic.
In their rural fishing community, which is home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, summer is the busiest season for many residents, Harvilla said.
That means that most families don’t take breaks or family vacations that coincide with the school break, he said.
“A lot of people didn’t travel for a couple years,” he said. “They are busy during the summer fishing, and family time locally. They do a lot of traveling in the fall, which does contribute to absenteeism.”
There also appeared to be a shift in how illness is handled by families, he said.
“When kids would come to school with fevers, stuffy noses in the past, that’s kind of frowned upon by the parents now, so they’ve been keeping kids home with minor illnesses a lot more now,” he said.
Harvilla said that while the district continues to stress the importance of attendance, teachers have also have found ways to adapt to rural students’ and families’ needs, and be more flexible with remote learning.
“We do find attendance to be very important. But we are also very used to providing work for kids, and staying in contact with kids, while they travel,” he said.
“We’ve learned to be a little more flexible, and allow the kids to get the work done and get educated, although they might not be in attendance as much,” he said.
Bishop, the state education commissioner, said she thinks finding ways to increase students’ sense of connection to their schools will be key to addressing the problem, which she said she views as a serious one.
“The habits and what we do every day determines our success,” she said. “So whether it’s getting back in band, or being in that sports team or club, connecting with each other is going to be a key to getting kids back.”