More Than 1 in 4 Kids Are Chronically Absent From School, Report Shows

Since COVID-era school closures, chronic absenteeism has increased from 15 to 26 percent, with poor districts struggling the most.


Since COVID-19 shuttered American schools, chronic absenteeism has skyrocketed, with the number of students missing more than ten percent of school days climbing from 15 to 26 percent since 2019, according to new data from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

While the cause of this increase is easily pinned on COVID-era online schooling, the solution to the problem has confounded school leaders, who are struggling to get students to return to school after becoming accustomed to lax online schooling.

"The tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic made one thing about education excruciatingly clear: Consistently showing up to school is good for students," writes AEI senior fellow Nat Malkus in a report discussing the new data. "The pandemic may have changed the terms of what qualifies as a crisis in education, but current chronic absenteeism levels would constitute a crisis under any terms."

Chronic absenteeism has increased across the board—affecting both wealthier and poorer districts. According to new data from the AEI, absenteeism increased from 10 percent in 2019 to 19 percent in 2023 in the richest school districts. In the poorest districts, absenteeism increased from 19 percent to a staggering 32 percent over the same time period. 

Surprisingly, the length of school closures didn't seem to impact the increase in absenteeism that much. Districts that were closed the longest saw absenteeism increase 12 percent, while those with the shortest closures saw a 10 percent increase.

However, things were even worse in years closer to pandemic closures. In 2022, for example, 28 percent of students were chronically absent. Overall, absenteeism rates fell from the 2021-2022 school year to the 2022-2023 school year in 33 of the 39 states reporting data. 

However chronic absenteeism levels were troublingly high even before COVID-19 school closures. "Unfortunately, consistent school attendance was a problem even before the pandemic struck," writes Malkus "Well before the pandemic, attuned observers and the US Department of Education alike characterized chronic absenteeism as a 'crisis.'"

School districts across the nation are struggling to reverse this trend. School leaders have tried everything from pajama parties to home visits in an attempt to get kids back in the classroom, with spotty success.

School officials told The New York Times that school closures normalized online schooling, where attendance was effectively optional. Since at many districts, teachers are required to post assignments online, students and parents seem to feel more comfortable staying at home.

"Our relationship with school became optional," Katie Rosanbalm, a Duke University psychologist told the Times