At first glance, the Back 2 School Bash looked like Atlanta Public School’s version of DragonCon. 

Over 12,000 families milled around the Georgia World Congress Center’s convention floor on July 22 to collect free school supplies and haircuts, health screenings for kids, and explore a host of exhibitions. Much of the festivities were aimed at promoting “Day One,” the district’s newly branded name for the first day of school on Aug. 1.

But despite the district’s efforts, only 38,800 of its 49,482 enrolled students—78.4%—showed up on Day One. A month later, the average daily attendance rate had increased to 92.6%. Even so, education advocates are concerned that chronic absenteeism, which spiked with the onset of COVID-19, isn’t going away. 

“The problem has gotten significantly worse in the post-pandemic era,” said Lori Miller, executive director of the Truancy Intervention Project Georgia, a nonprofit that aims to reduce chronic absenteeism, which means a student misses 10% or more of school days, or about three and a half weeks.  

“I think it’s a huge issue for Atlanta, but also particularly in Fulton County, DeKalb County, and places where children are living far below the poverty line,” Miller said.

A concerning problem

The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented disruption to the U.S. education system, causing student absenteeism to spike. The conventional wisdom was that kids would return to the classroom in numbers similar to pre-2020 levels as restrictions fell away.

But about one-quarter of Georgia students (24.4%) qualified as chronically absent during the 2021-2022 school year, when students returned to the classroom. Nearly every school in Georgia had an “unacceptable” attendance rating under current state standards, where more than 15% of their students are absent for over 15 days.

Atlanta Public Schools’ numbers are even more alarming. In 2019, before the pandemic, the chronic absenteeism rate for APS was 15%, consistent with the national average. It jumped to 38.4% during the 2020-2021 school year, which was mostly virtual. 

However, when students returned to in-person school for the 2021-2022 year, that rate hardly budged, at 38.5%—including 46.4% absenteeism for Black students and 29.6% for Hispanic students. Missed school days were far lower for white students, with only 9.1% deemed chronically absent. The rate was even higher, at 47%, for students with disabilities and students identified as economically disadvantaged (qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch). There isn’t any publicly available data yet for the current school year, but an APS spokesperson said the numbers so far are “consistent with last year’s attendance rate.” 

In comparison, here are the chronic absenteeism rate for surrounding districts:

  • Clayton County 30.7%
  • DeKalb 29.4%
  • Douglas 25.6%
  • Fulton 25.4%
  • Cobb 23.2%
  • Cherokee 20%
  • Forsyth 18.2%
  • Gwinnett 17.8%

Those numbers are concerning, says Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit to reduce chronic absenteeism. “Prior to the pandemic, typically you had really good attendance the first couple of months, and then it would dip in the winter,” said Chang. 

What’s more, APS had projected that enrollment would increase by 250 students for the 2023-2024 school year–but this year’s enrollment figure of 49,482 students is actually about 500 fewer than for the previous year. Concerningly, it’s a significant 5.6% decrease from the 52,416 students enrolled in APS schools for the 2018-2019 school year, pre-pandemic.

Atlanta Public Schools: Chronic absentee rate (2019-2022)

The lack of kids in the classroom isn’t just a Georgia problem. According to a study published by Stanford education policy researcher Thomas Dee last month, about one-quarter of U.S. public school students qualified as chronically absent during the 2022-2023 school year. 

The White House has taken notice. Last week, the Biden administration outlined the problem of chronic absenteeism since COVID-19’s onset on the blog. “School absences take a toll on grades and performance on standardized tests. Beyond test scores, irregular attendance can be a predictor of high school drop-out, which has been linked to poor labor market prospects, diminished health, and increased involvement in the criminal justice system,” read the White House report.

It added that learning disruptions from the spike in post-pandemic absenteeism could cost American students $2 trillion in lifetime earnings, according to estimates from The 74, an education news nonprofit.

Why aren’t kids in the classroom? 

There’s no magic answer to the problem of chronic absenteeism.

According to Dee’s report, the national increase in absenteeism in public schools with the return to in-school instruction isn’t because of illness from COVID-19, school masking policies, or declines in enrollment from parents switching children to private school. Instead, he cites underlying factors such as poverty and declines in youth mental health, academic engagement, and access to transportation. 

According to a recent ACC report, more than 2,000—or over 4%—of almost 50,000 total APS students reported being homeless during the last school year.

Miller at the Truancy Intervention Project said many children in metro-Atlanta had little supervision during the pandemic and were without formal instruction for months, because their parents were at work. Others had families who struggled with paying rent, getting food, and dealing with the deaths of family members to COVID-19. 

“Particularly for those historically underrepresented families that [the Truancy Intervention Project] serves, they had trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma,” said Miller. “When you have trauma in your brain, it impacts your engagement and the way that you learn.”

APS sends letters to parents after three unexcused absences, and again after five. Organizations like the Truancy Intervention Project step in after a student racks up numerous unexcused absences.

In one recent case that stands out for Miller, a student had about 50 absences in a school year. Upon investigation, it turned out that the child’s father had died, a sibling had been in a life-threatening car accident, and the family faced eviction and other severe problems. “Very rarely is it just a kid who doesn’t want to go to school. Often, there are all kinds of barriers in their life,” she said.

In an emailed statement, an APS spokesperson said the district “supports the needs of the whole child by using a multi-tiered system of support to remove barriers that prevent students from participating and engaging in learning. By working together and taking a comprehensive approach that includes prevention, early intervention, and intensive intervention to address absenteeism, we can change the trajectory of many students for the better.”

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