Wisconsin students missed nearly a month of school last year

Chronic absenteeism continues to climb since start of the COVID-19 pandemic

Students walk in the hallway of their middle school between classes.
In this photo taken Jan. 11, 2012, students fill the halls between classes at Aki Kurose Middle School in Seattle. Elaine Thompson/AP Photo

Since the pandemic, fewer Wisconsin students have reliably made it to school. The state’s attendance rate reached a new low of 91 percent last year and chronic absenteeism continues to be an issue, with more than 22 percent of students missing at least a month of school.

The picture is even more grim for high school students. The latest state data shows more than a quarter — 26 percent — of Wisconsin high school students missed a month of the 2021-2022 school year.

A student is considered chronically absent when they attend less than 90 percent of school days. The overall attendance rate for Wisconsin high school students was 89.7. Milwaukee Public Schools high school students attended only 70 percent of the time.

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Attendance is an important measure of student engagement and a predictor of future achievement, dropout or late graduation. And attendance rates have been dropping since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Average attendance hovered around 94 percent in the three years preceding the 2021-2022 school year, according to state Department of Public Instruction data. Attendance rates dropped to 93 percent in the 2020-2021 school year.

Quinton Klabon, a senior research director at the conservative Institute for Reforming Government, pointed to three reasons why absenteeism is continuing to rise: the toll the pandemic has taken on children’s mental health and normal habits; the feeling school is “optional” after the pandemic and restrictive quarantine policies that keep students out of school for several days.

“Everyone was paying attention to what schools did in autumn 2020, when school started in a pandemic, and spring 2021, when the successful vaccine was widely released. However, we overlooked the additional ground that we lost in the 2021-2022 school year due to restrictive quarantine policies,” Klabon said. “Kids were often sent home to quarantine for a week, then came back to substitute teachers filling in for quarantined teachers. Many school districts barely bounced back academically because, simply, children were not in class.”

Sara Shaw, a senior education researcher at the Wisconsin Policy Forum, said school districts should look at data and relationships when trying to combat absenteeism. The policy forum has studied chronic absenteeism for several years.

Shaw said the first question that should be answered is if the district has a chronic absentee problem or an absence problem district wide. Once the students are identified, a school district can find out why.

“Students may be experiencing instability at home, or having difficulty getting to school, or simply feeling disconnected, all of those might be easier to confide in with an adult that they have a relationship and addressing those issues rely on those relationships,” Shaw said.

Absenteeism higher in low-income districts, those with higher minority enrollment

In Milwaukee Public Schools — where attendance was the worst in the state last year at 79.3 percent and 58 percent of students are considered chronically absent — students who are exposed or have had close contact to someone with COVID-19 must quarantine for five days if they haven’t been vaccinated.

MPS did not respond to request for comment on the most recent attendance data.

State data shows 39 Wisconsin school districts had attendance levels lower than 90 percent last year. The majority of the districts are located in southeastern Wisconsin and northern Wisconsin and schools with higher rates of absenteeism also generally serve a larger share of students of color.

The larger districts include Milwaukee, Madison Metropolitan School District, Racine Unified School District, Kenosha Unified School District and the School District of Beloit. Smaller rural districts include Lac du Flambeau Public School, Menominee Indian School District and the Bowler School District.

Statewide data shows 58 percent of Black students were chronically absent during the 2021-2022 school year as were 44 percent of Native American students. That’s compared to 15 percent of white students.

Almost 37 percent of students from low income households were chronically absent compared to 12.6 percent of students who aren’t economically disadvantaged.

One example is the Bowler School District in Shawno County, about 30 miles south of the Menominee Reservation. The district’s two schools have a total of about 330 students — 60 percent are students of color and 62 percent are economically disadvantaged.

The attendance rate in Bowler is 87.7 percent and about 43.5 percent of students are considered chronically absent.

Absenteeism is a nationwide problem since pandemic began

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows school absenteeism reaches far beyond Wisconsin. The group reported increased student absenteeism as a COVID-19-related problem across a wide range of school types in the 2021-22 school year. Chronic absenteeism was up 75 percent in elementary schools, 73 percent in schools with lower student poverty rates, and 71 percent in rural schools.

As a result, schools have also reported an increase in incidents of classroom disruptions from student misconduct and rowdiness outside of the classroom.

“Students thrive in an environment with effective social, emotional, and behavioral support,” NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr said in a statement. “So when we see 72 percent of our public schools report an increase in chronic absenteeism among our students, it poses an opportunity for education leaders to act quickly using tested approaches that work.”

Teachers are also absent.

The NCES survey found 72 percent of U.S. public schools reported an increase in teacher absences during the last school year, compared to 49 percent of public schools the previous year. At the same time, 77 percent of public schools said it is more difficult finding substitute teachers compared to years prior to the pandemic.