The percentage of Portland public school students who are chronically absent increased in the first weeks of the school year compared to a year ago, a sign that the coronavirus pandemic is continuing to disrupt education despite a return to classrooms this fall.
For the first six weeks of school, from Sept. 1 through Oct. 15, a total of 1,323 students, or 20.4 percent, were chronically absent. That’s up from 18.5 percent during the same period last year and 13.4 percent in the 2019-2020 school year.
Chronic absenteeism in Maine is defined as missing 10 percent or more of enrolled school days, including both excused and unexcused absences. Statewide, the rate of chronic absenteeism was 18.3 percent in 2019-2020, according to the most recent data from the Maine Department of Education.
Maine and many other states haven’t yet released data from 2020-21 or the current year, but national survey results from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company show a significant rise in chronic absenteeism during the pandemic, particularly for older students. A McKinsey survey of 16,370 parents across the country conducted in June shows chronic absenteeism for eighth through 12th graders increased by 12 percentage points last year.
Scaled up to the national level, that suggests 2.3 million to 4.6 million additional eighth- to 12th-grade students were chronically absent from school last year, in addition to the 3.1 million who are chronically absent in non-pandemic years, McKinsey said.
In the first six weeks of school, it would only take three or four days to make a student chronically absent. Still, Portland officials say they’re concerned about early signs students are continuing to miss more school and are working to understand the reasons why. Last year, remote learning, particularly at the high school level, was believed to be contributing to more absences.
This year, although all students are back to full in-person learning, it’s believed COVID-19 quarantines are playing a factor. As of Nov. 19, more than 830 close contacts have had to quarantine this fall in Portland schools.
“The return to in-person learning has produced some improvements but the data also demonstrates there are a number of continuing challenges we are facing as we continue to respond to the ongoing pandemic,” Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend told the school board earlier this month.
The changes in attendance patterns have not been felt equally across schools, grade levels and student demographics.
At the elementary level, chronic absenteeism is up 9 percent from pre-pandemic levels, to 19 percent. Middle schools, where chronic absenteeism is 20 percent, are almost back to pre-pandemic levels after a sharp spike last year, while high schools have seen a slight increase over the last two years to 22 percent.
Chronic absenteeism has gotten worse for all racial groups during the pandemic, although certain groups have fared worse than others. Chronic absenteeism for Latino students, which also had the highest rate pre-pandemic, has risen to 30 percent from 20 percent two years ago. The rate for both Black and white students is 19 percent, while it’s 18 percent for Asian students and 23 percent for students of two or more races.
The most dramatic racial disparity impacts Latino high school students, for whom the chronic absenteeism rate so far this year is 38 percent, compared to 19 percent for their white peers and 23 percent for Black high school students.
The district is holding a listening session Dec. 4 with Latino families, school staff, district leadership and parent community specialists to get a better understanding of what is driving the higher absentee rates and how to address it.
“We need to actually hear from people in those communities, why are their children not in school?” Superintendent Xavier Botana told the board at a meeting earlier this month. “I don’t have the answers. We need to collectively work to get those answers and that’s the work we are beginning on Dec. 4 as we look at this data and we understand that our central hypothesis of bringing students back (in-person) would solve this, and it didn’t solve this.”
Chronic absence in the first few months of school is especially problematic for learning, relationships and routines, said Susan Lieberman, executive director of Count ME In, a partnership of schools, businesses and community organizations that works to improve school attendance across Maine.
“The surge in COVID cases is increasing,” Lieberman said in an email. “We have seen an increase in the number of Maine students who are absent due to quarantines and/or COVID-like symptoms. The good news is that more districts are starting to establish pooled testing, which has helped to decrease the time students are under quarantine.”
Work to improve attendance is fundamentally about creating a positive and caring school culture that motivates students to want to come to school, Townsend said. “Attendance is not a thing to take on by itself in a silo, but is part of a broader set of strategies to make school a place where students feel welcome and feel a sense of belonging,” he said.
The district is focusing on deepening that sense of belonging through work with advisors and a social and emotional learning curriculum. They’re also continuing to develop a shared understanding around restorative justice and de-escalation as part of overall work on disciplinary practices. All educators at all schools will be getting verbal de-escalation training this year.
“Not all this work has happened in the first six weeks but it’s part of the work we’ve laid out that we feel is essential to create the conditions to come back given the challenges in front of us,” Townsend said.
Other school districts are also monitoring trends in student attendance and how they’re continuing to be impacted by the pandemic. In South Portland, which had a chronic absenteeism rate of 11.7 percent in 2019-2020, according to the Maine Department of Education, Superintendent Tim Matheney said they know the pandemic has exacerbated inequities for a number of subgroups of students.
“As a result, we’re keeping a close eye on chronic absenteeism here, which we think is elevated this year, particularly for our economically disadvantaged students,” Matheney said in an email. “We feel our most effective intervention with families is to create individual plans of support that address the specific needs of students.”