Where Have All The Children Gone?

Part II: Tracking Truants and Absentees in Georgia Schools

By Cindy Morley

Investigative Journalist for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Absenteeism has long been a concern of educators and others who spend their days working with schoolchildren. For decades, officials have searched for ways to address chronic absenteeism. COVID-19 and the transition to online learning have intensified the challenge. 

Nationally, studies show, student absences have doubled during the pandemic, whether in fully remote schools, in-person learning, or hybrid learning environments. A survey of public school teachers by the EdWeek Research Center found that in May 2020, nearly one in four (23%) students were considered “truant:” not logging into any online work, not making contact with teachers, etc. Furthermore, close to 45% of teachers reported students had “much lower” levels of engagement with schoolwork than before the pandemic.

Another EdWeek survey, of K-12 educators from September 30 to October 8, found student absences doubled during the pandemic: “Before the pandemic, daily absenteeism rates were roughly equal among elementary, middle and high school students. Now, though, the numbers suggest high schoolers are slightly more likely to be absent (13% on a typical day) than middle (11%) or elementary schoolers (9%).” Absences also increased among students in full-time, in-person instruction.

An Absence of Data

Measuring the effects of the pandemic on school attendance is complicated by a dearth of data, whether intentional or inadvertent, on the part of education agencies. The survey results suggest that COVID-era student absenteeism went from bad last spring to worse in the fall, affecting students’ academic performance as well as social-emotional development. Attendance trends in Georgia seem to be following the same pattern, according to educational leaders and advocates in the state.

In Georgia, each school district keeps its own attendance records. The data are collected by state education officials at the end of the school year, meaning the 2019-2020 attendance report is the most current available through the Georgia Department of Education (GADOE).

Under this procedure, while districts are aware of attendance patterns, the actual impact of COVID-19 on attendance across the state for 2020-2021 will not be collated until the end of the school year. 

"...the actual impact of COVID-19 on attendance across the state for 2020-2021 will not be collated until the end of the school year. "

As Few as 5 Days

According to the GADOE, “Data indicate that missing more than five days of school each year, regardless of the cause, begins to impact student academic performance and starts shaping attitudes about school.” 

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% or more of school days, be they  excused and unexcused absences or suspension. But chronically absent students are not the only students affected. For students in grades six through nine, student attendance is a better predictor of dropping out of school than test scores, whether absences are excused or unexcused. 

In Georgia, any child “subject to compulsory attendance who, during the school calendar year, has more than five (5) days of unexcused absences is considered truant.”

Who’s Counting?

Some educational advocates worry about a lack of consistency in attendance tracking across the state. Bill Armistead of Century Strategies, whose clients include both cable companies and companies involved with online learning, suggests a number of factors can affect attendance.

“A lot of people want to blame the lack of broadband and internet, but there are so many factors that could be involved,” Armistead said. “There are a number of factors that have to fall into place for online learning to be effective and successful, such as internet services, proper hardware and software, and computer skills.

“But what about the other factors? What about the homes where parents work and the students are staying with their grandparents, who may not have a computer in the house? What about the families with one computer and two or more children trying to log in for class? Or what about the students who have just checked out of online learning because their teachers have quit giving out grades?”

Armistead also questioned how schools are taking attendance online and “what they are calling absenteeism.”

Under state law, a student in class for half a day can be considered present at school. Updated June 2020 GADOE guidance defines full-time students (FTE, or full-time equivalent) as “students who are present for at least one of the 10 days prior to the FTE count day. In other words, the student has attended class.”

“‘Attended class’ for virtual and/or distance learning students means that the student has been acknowledged through direct interaction between the student and the instructor at some time during the 10-day period preceding the FTE count day.”

“We have to remember that schools receive funding based on the number of students in attendance,” Armistead said. “They have an incentive for higher attendance numbers.”

The GADOE cited examples of how some virtual schools track student attendance for full or hybrid virtual instruction/distance/remote learning: 

  • duration in online course and time spent in the online classroom/platform 
  • log-in into online platform
  • attendance during live virtual instruction 
  • submission of assignments and student/teacher interactions.

Attendance Works is a project of the Community Initiatives national nonprofit organization, its mission “to advance student success and help close equity gaps by reducing chronic absence.” Its new national report found that before the pandemic, one out of six students – 8 million – experienced some level of chronic absenteeism. Those with the most absences are also in the groups hardest hit during the pandemic by poor health, economic hardship and unequal access to schooling.

Public Data Scarce

Connecticut, “as a result of challenges brought on by the epidemic … took the unusual step of collecting attendance data monthly and regularly releasing it to the public,” Attendance Works reports. According to early school year 2020-21 data – the first publicly available data from any state for the year – “chronic absence has, for example, jumped from 17.2% to 35.2% for English language learners and risen from 20.3% to 34.9% for students eligible for free meals.” 

In Georgia, while no new statewide data have been released, district officials interviewed said they know that chronic absenteeism has been higher this year. Confounding any count is the nearly 36,000 students “missing” from public school rolls this school year. Some students enrolled in virtual schools or home schooling, but officials worry some are not attending class at all.

“One question facing school officials right now is where are these students,” said Garry McGiboney, who until October 2020 was deputy superintendent at the GADOE, where he spent his career studying the link between absenteeism and truancy. 

“Attendance numbers could be misleading if students who have left the school for another learning option have not been removed from the school rolls,” said McGiboney, who is now executive director of Government and Education Programs at Sharecare Inc., a digital health and wellness company.

"Some students enrolled in virtual schools or home schooling, but officials worry some are not attending class at all."

No Show, No Progress

When looking at the toll the pandemic has already taken on families, many educators, juvenile judges, counselors and social workers are concerned about how much could really be at stake, especially given the link between absenteeism and truancy. 

A recent University of California study examined the impact of absenteeism on academic and social-emotional learning outcomes from 2014-2018 for students in grades three through 12. The findings concurred with prior research that showed increased absenteeism has clear negative effects on students’ test scores. 

Negative academic effects were larger in middle school than in elementary grades, and more pronounced for certain subgroups of students: those who qualify for subsidized meals, those with disabilities and homeless students, although not for English language learners.

The findings also suggest absenteeism harms students’ social-emotional skills in much the same way it does academic skills. What’s worse, these effects were observed during “normal” school years, before the upheavals of COVID-19. 

‘Bad Things Begin to Happen’

Troup County Juvenile Court Judge Michael Key worries that many students missing class “are those who really need the structure that in-person education provides.”

“We have seen that many students attending school virtually are ‘not attending’ classes regularly and that is a problem,” Key said. “Children who miss school will fall behind.  And when students fall behind, a lot of bad things begin to happen in their lives.  

“For most students who fall behind, they begin to feel the pressure of trying to catch up, they become frustrated, lose their self-esteem and wind up hating school or dropping out. Kids who are not attending school begin hanging out with other kids not attending school, and that presents a lot of opportunities to go sideways.”

Troup Tackles Truancy

Key cited Troup officials’ efforts to provide more in-person learning. A “Handle With Care” program acknowledges many students missing class may be struggling with underlying issues in their lives. Family liaisons focus on attendance to track who is in the classroom, and family liaisons, counselors and administrators make phone calls or visits to families where children are chronically absent.

Nicole Kennedy is the Title I Parent and Family Engagement Coordinator and foster care point of contact for Troup County schools. She said the year has been “very stressful and challenging,” but the county has worked out a system that “has eased the process.”

The school system used attendance tracking policies developed for the roll-out of the Troup County Virtual Academy, a fully online school which reported enrolling about 28% of Troup’s nearly 12,200 public school students, and attendance appears to be improving a little as the school year goes on,” Kennedy said.

The ‘Iceberg’ Theory

Troup’s family liaisons, meanwhile, focus on the “iceberg” theory in dealing with chronic absenteeism, Kennedy explained: “What you don’t see underneath the water are all the factors the child may be dealing with in their lives, whether it be substance abuse, mental health issues or so many other family related issues.

“We know that the most at-risk children need to be in the classroom every day, and that has been a priority” for the community, especially during the pandemic,” Kennedy said. 

Troup also needed to tackle “parental training” early in the year. In March, when the pandemic struck and schools went virtual, attendance was not mandatory. Many parents and students were still in that mindset when schools opened in the fall with mandatory attendance.

McGiboney, the former state deputy school superintendent, said his research on absenteeism and truancy revealed that chronic absenteeism is often not the fault of parents.

“We have seen parents in tears because they can’t get their child to school no matter how hard they try. We also have a lot of children with truancy problems who have experienced language barriers. They have difficulty expressing themselves and become frustrated.”

McGiboney continues to follow attendance research and data during the pandemic; he believes much could be at stake.

“Consistent research has shown that the majority of students who end up in Juvenile Court or the Juvenile System had attendance problems while in school,” he said. “For most of these children, the absenteeism began in the early grades and grew as the child became older.”

He maintains that school culture can play a key role in addressing children’s issues and help thwart the tendency to become labeled as “truant.” Judge Key agrees.

“I was glad to see the lawmakers of this state expand a bill that now requires that communities and schools work together to address school climate and truancy through the recommendations of their local Student Attendance and School Climate Committee,” Key said. 

Until officials have current data, the scope of truancy and absenteeism across the state will not be known. The GADOE continued with “business as usual” during extraordinary times. If Connecticut’s transparency is anything to go by, Georgia faces an enormous catchup effort when this crisis is finally revealed and educators struggle to bridge the chasm in children’s learning and development that is hidden in the mist of inconsistent roll calls. 

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