Chronic absenteeism in Michigan schools drops, but still higher since COVID
Chronic absenteeism in Michigan schools is declining, but new data released Tuesday shows 3-in-10 public school students are missing too much school, and the rate remains far higher than before the pandemic.
During the 2022-23 school year, 30.8 percent of Michigan students were chronically absent. That’s down from 38.5 percent the previous year.
But still far above the pre-pandemic rate of 19.7 percent.
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“We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not where we need to be,” Judy Pritchett, a member of the State Board of Education, said during a presentation on the data at a meeting Tuesday. “I'm not sure we were where we needed to be prior to the pandemic.”
Michigan had one of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the nation in 2021-22.
Pamela Pugh, the board president, said Michigan’s struggles are tied to many systemic issues.
“We can’t look at that statistic without looking at our statistics around Michigan being at the bottom of the 50 states in how our schools are funded equitably in the state, but also our building infrastructure,” she said. “Would you want to go to a home where roofs are leaking, where there are rodents in the schools, where they don’t have heat in the winter and air in the summer?”
The Detroit Public Schools Community District, which has long struggled with endemic poverty and high rates of chronic absenteeism, saw its percentage improve to 66.11 percent, from 76.73 percent. The improvement was better than what the district reported in July. In the 2018-19 school year, the rate was 62.1 percent.
In Michigan, a student is chronically absent if they miss 18 days during the 180-day school year.
Chronic absenteeism rates among certain demographic groups were significantly higher than the statewide average of 30.8 percent, including students experiencing homelessness at 60.1 percent; students from families considered to be “economically disadvantaged,” at 41.8 percent; students with disabilities, at 39.5 percent; and Black students at 53.1 percent.
State Superintendent Michael Rice pointed out during the presentation that for most of these vulnerable student groups, the disparities narrowed during the 2022-23 school year from to the previous year.
The chronic absenteeism rate among students experiencing homelessness, for example, was down six percentage points from 2021-22. Similarly, the rate among students from economically disadvantaged families decreased by 8.6 points. Rates for students with disabilities and Black students also significantly decreased.
Chronic absence rarely boils down to a student’s choice to skip school, experts say. Far more often, it reflects economic inequities such as a lack of access to healthcare, employment opportunities, affordable housing, reliable transportation, or childcare. The problem is especially acute in Detroit and other cities with high child poverty rates.
Many districts saw a surge in chronic absenteeism during the pandemic, in part because quarantine rules required students who had COVID or contact with someone with COVID to miss multiple days of school.
“As the pandemic waned, attendance rates improved, and chronic absenteeism declined significantly,” Rice said in a statement. “That said, we have a great deal of work still to do in our local schools on this important, multi-faceted issue.”
Republican board member Nikki Snyder agreed that the progress hasn’t been enough, and pointed to the high cost of absenteeism. “The most important factor in dropping out is absenteeism,” she said. “So, it’s not even just GPA. We lose these kids altogether.”
Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Hannah Dellinger is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 education. Contact Hannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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