Where are the Children? The COVID-19 Attendance Crisis & Using this Moment to Address Whole Child Wellbeing

January 22, 2021 | Ohio

Where are the Children? The COVID-19 Attendance Crisis & Using this Moment to Address Whole Child Wellbeing

January 22, 2021

By Alison Paxson , Communications & Policy Associate

Reliable data has been scarce since the COVID-19 pandemic began, making it difficult to fully grasp the wide range of its impacts on students in Ohio and across the country.

In the time that has passed since initial school closures last March, two things at least have become clear:

  1. COVID-19 has disrupted the educations of nearly every student in the United States; and
  2. The children and youth who faced significant barriers engaging in their educations well before the pandemic are facing even steeper challenges now.

Graduation data released this month from the Columbus City School District in central Ohio gives us new insight into just how steep. According to district officials, less than 40% of all Columbus City Schools’ seniors are currently ‘on track’ to graduate in 2021.  For four different high schools within the school district, the percentage of ‘on track’ seniors is less than 20%.

The reasons can vary greatly, even in a “normal” year – from getting behind in classwork or being held back and struggling to catch up, to dealing with issues at home such as caring for a family member(s) or transitioning to work instead of attending classes to help with household finances, to feeling unsafe or bullied in school environments. Research shows us that one of the most statistically significant factors in graduating on time is the socioeconomic status of a child’s household. What is causing so many students to veer ‘off track’ in graduating from high school?

In this year in particular, as our education system and students have grappled with the pandemic, we know there are even more hurdles such as challenges to broadband internet and device access for virtual instruction, to a lack of education accommodations and supports for students with disabilities and English language learners at home, to heightened household stress with rising unemployment, housing and hunger insecurity, and the inaccessibility of mental and behavioral health services for children and families.

Taking daily attendance has taken on new complexity and become more difficult in a virtual learning environment, which has made data on school attendance less readily available and perhaps, as some experts fear, less accurate as well. However, some initial numbers on chronic absenteeism in districts throughout Ohio and across the country could be indicative of significant impact the pandemic is having on students. According to data released this past September, Columbus City Schools had the highest chronic absenteeism rate of any district in Ohio last school year, with some high schools, such as Mifflin High School for example, recording 50% of their entire student bodies as chronically absent.

High rates of chronic absenteeism are not just concentrated in Columbus City Schools or even in Ohio for that matter. With COVID-19, low student attendance is quickly becoming a national crisis that is hitting children in foster care, English learners, students with disabilities, and those at risk of or experiencing homelessness the hardest. This COVID-19 attendance crisis will have repercussions for generations to come if we do not act immediately to intervene and support the millions of students nationwide who are facing these barriers to their educations.

This crisis will require the action of leaders at every level of government. Stemming this crisis will not be easy, but in order to make sure Ohio is a place where our children can thrive – no matter their income, race, ethnicity, zip code, or ability –we must start addressing this issue by:

  • Collecting more data disaggregated by race and ethnicity on attendance. We need more data to inform us of who went missing so that we can then extend outreach and connect them with supportive services and/or necessary devices and connectivity so they can reengage in their learning.
  • Developing school policies and programs to address and intervene in this crisis that are informed by and meet unmet student needs. Policies and programs must understand where students are coming from and meet their unmet basic needs. Chronic absenteeism rates are worsened when we seek to address them with punitive actions. This lacks recognition of what actually causes students to be chronically absent – poverty, being unhoused, food insecurity, economic instability, and other factors outside a students’ control – and therefore adds to a child’s difficulties rather than supports them in overcoming the ones they already face.
  • Passing the proposed federal American Rescue Plan. We need federal COVID relief to help struggling families and their children achieve greater stability.
  • Reapportioning resources toward students most in need. Beyond adopting a new school funding formula, Ohio needs to direct maximum effort and funds to families and children that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic in the upcoming state budget process. This includes preserving Student Health and Wellness Funding from the previous budget to ensure school districts can leverage community partnerships and implement their plans for whole student wellness.