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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Confronting the chronic absenteeism crisis in our schools

Students go into school (copy)

Drury High School students go into school one morning recently. In North Adams Public Schools, 48.7 percent of students were chronically absent during the 2020-2021 school year, the most recent state data available. Rates were higher at Drury.

Given the massive disruption COVID caused for schooling — and everything else — it is unfortunate but unsurprising that a national upward trend in student absence for the 2020-21 school year was felt here in the Berkshires. Just how hard that spike hit in some corners of the county is deeply concerning, with chronic absenteeism rates in several Berkshire school districts far outstripping the state average.

Students are considered chronically absent when they miss 10 percent or more of the school year. Across Massachusetts, 17.7 percent of public school students were chronically absent during the 2020-21 school year, according to the most recent data released by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Multiple Berkshire districts, however, fared far worse. In Pittsfield Public Schools, the chronic absenteeism rate was 29.5 percent. In Hoosac Valley Regional School District, it was 34 percent. For North Adams Public Schools, it was 48.7 percent — almost triple the statewide average.

State and local education officials cautioned against reading too much into numbers from the first full year of pandemic schooling, when unprecedented challenges and uncertainty produced a school year unlike any other. Still, it is alarming to realize that nearly one in three PPS and Hoosac Valley students and one in two North Adams Public Schools students lost at least several weeks of schooling in 2020-21. On top of the baseline disruption caused by COVID, a whole swath of kids had a massive hole punched in their formative education, never mind the other heavy social impacts the pandemic wrought on kids and families. Now, education officials and communities must keep a close eye on how these numbers evolve to determine whether this was a heavy one-time loss, which would be bad enough, or the beginning of something worse: a snowballing trend that will continue to hamper attendance rates among vulnerable students.

On one hand, this should be a call to action for school districts across the Berkshires to try everything they can to blunt this sharp increase. Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Joseph Curtis, for instance, acknowledged the need for districts to improve their lines of communication and connection with families, and ticked off some specific ways of doing that: home visits by adjustment counselors, writing more letters home to flag student issues before they worsen, transportation aid for families in tight spots.

On the other hand, while those and other creative and substantive approaches by school districts would be welcome, local education leaders also acknowledge that the problem is exacerbated by factors outside of the school system’s direct control — and we’re not just talking novel coronaviruses.

Like many issues, this one does not fall evenly across socioeconomic lines, a reality that tracks at every level of chronic student absence data.

A McKinsey and Company nationwide survey found that low-income students are 1.6 times more likely to miss multiple days of school compared to high-income peers. The DESE data demonstrate that divide in Massachusetts, where disadvantaged students across the commonwealth had a chronic absence rate of 30 percent — well above the statewide average of 17.7 percent. The Berkshire districts that struggled the most with chronic absenteeism also saw their attendance rates break down similarly.

All this means that while school districts obviously have an important role to play here, so do the factors outside our schools’ walls that put the squeeze on working families and their children. Much research has shown similar causal relationships between economic privilege and home stability (or lack thereof) with overall school performance and disciplinary problems, and it shouldn’t be surprising that this extends to attendance, too. Nearly everyone says they want to support their local education system, but as with so many social issues pressurized by the pandemic — elder care, mental health access, the opioid crisis — this is a matter of not just pronouncing our priorities but putting our money where our mouth is. That means supporting our public schools — which requires more parity in state funding for struggling rural districts — and implementing real supports for the working families in those school communities as well.

Schools themselves can’t do that alone, but Massachusetts, with its twin legacy of leading on progressive policy and educational excellence, must do more to help its communities with that critical mission.

Beacon Hill leaders are expecting a sizable state surplus, and they’re teeing up considerable economic relief plans to return some of that to Bay Staters. That effort comes amid economic uncertainty and inflation woes, conditions that fall hardest on the lower-income households captured in this chronic student absence data.

While we have that data in hand and in mind, lawmakers ought to consider how this historic cash flow into the commonwealth’s coffers could go toward helping the struggling families behind these numbers and offering some holistic support to the most overlooked school communities.

At the very least, these worrying numbers should call us all to increased vigilance. As the stats for the 2021-22 school year are compiled for future release, we hope for the best — that this absenteeism crisis abates as we stride beyond the COVID era — but must consider the worst — that this might only be the start of a troubling trend hitting our most vulnerable young neighbors.

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