Bueller? Bueller? Chronic absenteeism in NC schools at 27%

By Katherine Zehnder

Raleigh, NC – In North Carolina, more than one in four public school children were chronically absent in 2023, only down slightly from its peak in the 2021-22 school year. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing more than 10% of the year, equating to 18 days, or about three and a half weeks of education. 

Thirty-one percent of public school children were chronically absent for the 2021-22 school year, according to Dr. Andrew Smith, assistant superintendent of the Office of Innovation at North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), the Carolina Journal recently reported. According to Dr. Smith, this percentage equates to about half a million children across the state missing 18 days or more of school.   

“We believe chronic absenteeism needs to be reflected in this model because kids cannot learn if they are not in school,” Dr. Smith told the Carolina Journal in an email. “Chronic absenteeism was a challenge prior to COVID-19 and has been magnified by the pandemic, and inclusion in the model helps ensure local and state leaders- as well as parents- have insight into the issue so that solutions can be at the forefront of our minds.”

The issue is not exclusive to North Carolina but is indicative of a national trend. Chronic absenteeism has been on the rise nationally since 2015. National statistics show an increase from 15% in 2018 to 28% in 2022, and remaining high in 2023. In North Carolina those rates increased from 15% in 2018, to 16% in 2019, and all the way to 32% in 2022, according to the Return2Learn (R2L) Tracker.

The AP reports North Carolina percentages for 2021-22 are on par with New York, Florida, and Washington. While only being exceeded by Michigan, New Mexico, Alaska, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, and Nevada.

During a January 30 congressional hearing, Rep. Lisa McClain, R-MI, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Healthcare and Financial Services, reported that chronic absenteeism was “74% higher last school year than prior to the pandemic. That’s scary to me. If children and students aren’t in school it’s very difficult for them to grow, for them to learn. Whether it be educationally as well as socially, and it shows. I mean nationwide, the average reading and math scores for a 13-year-old declined four points and nine points, respectively, from before the pandemic to this past school year.”

“This is not a new problem, but COVID shutdowns turned it into a crisis. In 2019, about 15 percent of students nationwide were chronically absent. By 2022, that jumped to 28 percent, wrote Frederick Hess and Nat Malkus, senior fellows of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “Worse yet, it’s not even declining that much, despite a much rosier COVID picture. In 2023, the first true post-pandemic year without a COVID variant spike, 26 percent of students were chronically absent.”

During Monday’s committee meeting on education reform, state house Rep. Maria Cervania, D-Wake, expressed her concern for this issue and asked why this is happening and what can be done to bring this down.

“So this is not a North Carolina problem; this is a national problem,” said Catherine Truitt, superintendent of the NC Department of Public Instruction. “It is higher than the pandemic. But I believe that before the pandemic in North Carolina, it was still around 20%. But I think what’s concerning is that it has not improved since students returned from the school closures. We have heard over the last two years a couple of superintendents say I cannot impact absenteeism, and we don’t believe that to be true. There are many toolkits that have been published. There are many no-cost and low-cost ways that a superintendent or principal can impact student attendance. It is higher in high school, but it’s still concerningly high in elementary and middle school as well.”

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, co-chair of the committee, spoke to the issue of chronic absenteeism in his comments.

“Could we not alert our families,’ said Rep. Torbett. “The ones that we know more or less fall in that category, about the legal implications it has to truancy, that could receive a class one misdemeanor by not sending your children to school, which would go on the record up until the age of 16. Can we also not notify our superintendents to make sure that they alert those families that they have to get their children to school… But you have to be educating your child at least now up to the age of 16, and I think maybe, just maybe, we emphasize that throughout the Great State of North Carolina, we’ve cut that 30% down to 10% in a matter of a few weeks.”

“So we would definitely be willing to do that, but it would require cooperation on the part of the court system and the juvenile justice system. Because there they are technically the group that is responsible for the truth for enforcing the truancy laws,” responded Superintendent Truitt.

Data shows that chronic absenteeism has drastically increased when comparing statistics from pre and post-COVID years. The 2021-22 school year shows that approximately 28% of students were chronically absent, an increase of roughly 89% over pre-pandemic rates. In the first post-pandemic year, 2022-23, data shows that rates only decreasing slightly.

“All told, the data suggest that chronic absenteeism is shaping up to be education’s long COVID and that any hope of academic recovery will require getting students to attend school consistently,” wrote Malkus, senior fellow of education policy studies at AEI in his latest report.

Everyone is asking the obvious question: what can be done to address this issue? In his January 30 testimony before Congress, Nat Malkus outlined four measures that he believes are necessary to the solution. First, both a carrot and stick approach is needed; secondly, top-down leadership is essential to support the bottom; third, while teachers have more relational capital with students and families, they are overworked and overburdened. Lastly, we must call on students and families to fulfill their responsibility to “ensure regular school attendance.”

“A multi-pronged approach is necessary to address the problem,” said Dr. Bob Luebke, Director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Lock Foundation. “In addition to carrots and sticks and a recognition by students and families of their responsibilities, policymakers must be vigilant in monitoring progress. We can talk about improving the schools as much as we want. If children aren’t in school, however, none of that matters. That’s why chronic absenteeism is an issue that must be resolved.”