Massachusetts, nearly four years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, is still grappling with a significant rise in student absences, prompting state education officials to label the situation as “staggering.” Jeff Riley, the Commissioner for K-12 Education in Massachusetts, emphasized that addressing chronic absenteeism is the key to improving educational outcomes for children, making it a top priority for the year ahead.
Unprecedented Levels of Absenteeism
Speaking during a recent meeting of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Riley expressed concern over the unprecedented levels of absenteeism, not only in Massachusetts but across the country. The state defines students who miss 10% or more of school days as “chronically absent,” which equates to at least 18 days missed during a regular school year, whether excused or unexcused. Between 2019 and 2023, the state-wide rate of chronic absenteeism has surged by a substantial 72%, according to state officials. In 2019, only 13% of students state-wide were categorized as chronically absent.
By June 2022, this figure had climbed to nearly 29%. While the most recent data from June indicates slight improvement, it still remains elevated at over 22%. Notably, chronic absenteeism is especially prevalent in the elementary grades and among students from low-income households, where approximately 33% of all grades are affected. The pandemic caused significant spikes in absenteeism in large urban districts, such as Lawrence, with some progress made in recovery but not yet back to pre-pandemic levels.
Efforts for Tracking of Absences
To address this concerning trend, Commissioner Riley announced that his office will allocate $4 million in support to districts to enhance the tracking of absences and collaborate with students’ families to facilitate their return to school. He also proposed giving greater weight to attendance data as an accountability measure to identify districts that may require state intervention in the coming year. Research has established a link between frequent school absences and negative consequences beyond just learning loss, including higher dropout rates and disciplinary problems. Pediatrician Beverly Nazarian, speaking during the meeting, highlighted the essential role of schools in providing schedules, social connections, and socialization for students’ mental health, underscoring that a community-based solution is necessary.
Recovery Academies and Mindset Shift
While Commissioner Riley didn’t provide specific details about the solution, he mentioned “recovery academies” as a potential example. These academies would offer additional instruction during school vacations, inspired by a program he initiated a decade ago while serving as a middle school principal in Boston. The proposed $4 million grant and the idea of incorporating attendance data into the state’s accountability system sparked debate among board members. Board vice-chair Matt Hills expressed concerns about the overemphasis on attendance within an accountability system primarily designed to measure academic progress.
In response, Riley stressed that the absenteeism issue is severe enough to necessitate novel approaches to rectify it, opening the door for further discussion at the board’s upcoming family summit in Marlborough.
In the meantime, Patrick Tutwiler, who assumed the role of the state’s education secretary in December, plans to appear in a television commercial advocating for regular school attendance. Tutwiler, who had served as the superintendent of Lynn Public Schools, achieved a three-percentage-point reduction in chronic absenteeism between 2015 and 2020. He attributed this success to a “mindset shift” that emphasized the importance of “every student, every day.”
Tutwiler emphasized that absenteeism often reflects unmet needs, such as food security, housing stability, or issues with other students or the school itself. The state’s concerted efforts to address absenteeism reflect a commitment to ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to access quality education and support.