If you’re a child — or a former child — you know how hard it can be to summon the energy to leave the house each day for school. It’s early in the morning, and you are tired. Maybe you have a test or a social situation that’s making you anxious. Staying in bed often seems easier.
For as long as schools have existed, so have these morning struggles. Nonetheless, children overcame them almost every day, sometimes with a strong nudge from parents. Going to school was the normal thing to do.
Then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
The long school closures during the Covid pandemic were the biggest disruption in the history of modern American education. And those closures changed the way many students and parents think about school. Attendance, in short, has come to feel more optional than it once did, and absenteeism has soared, remaining high even as Covid has stopped dominating everyday life.
On an average day last year — the 2022-23 school year — close to 10 percent of K-12 students were not there, preliminary state data suggests. About one quarter of U.S. students qualified as chronically absent, meaning that they missed at least 10 percent of school days (or about three and a half weeks). That’s a vastly higher share than before Covid.
“I’m just stunned by the magnitude,” said Thomas Dee, a Stanford economist who has conducted the most comprehensive study on the issue.
This surge of absenteeism is one more problem confronting schools as they reopen for a new academic year. Students still have not made up the ground they lost during the pandemic, and it’s much harder for them to do so if they are missing from the classroom.
Losing the habit
In Dee’s study, he looked for explanations for the trend, and the obvious suspects didn’t explain it. Places with a greater Covid spread did not have higher lingering levels of absenteeism, for instance. The biggest reason for the rise seems to be simply that students have fallen out of the habit of going to school every day.
Consistent with this theory is the fact that absenteeism has risen more in states where schools remained closed for longer during the pandemic, like California and New Mexico (and in Washington, D.C.). The chart below shows the correlation between Dee’s state data on chronic absenteeism and data from Thomas Kane, a Harvard economist, on the share of students in each state who in 2020-21 were enrolled in districts where most students were remote:
“For almost two years, we told families that school can look different and that schoolwork could be accomplished in times outside of the traditional 8-to-3 day,” Elmer Roldan, who runs a dropout prevention group, told The Los Angeles Times. “Families got used to that.”
Lisa Damour, a psychologist and the author of “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers,” points out that parents think they are doing the right thing when they allow an anxious child to skip a day of school. She has deep empathy for these parents, she said. Doing so often makes the child feel better in the moment. But there are costs.
“The most fundamental thing for adults to understand is that avoidance feeds anxiety,” Damour told me. “When any of us are fearful, our instinct is to avoid. But the problem with giving in to that anxiety is that avoidance is highly reinforcing.” The more often students skip school, the harder it becomes to get back in the habit of going.
I know that some readers will wonder whether families are making a rational choice by keeping their children home, given all the problems with schools today: the unhealthily early start times for many high schools; the political fights over curriculum; the bullying and the vaping; the inequalities that afflict so many areas of American life.
And the rise in chronic absenteeism is indeed a sign that schools need help. One promising step would be to make teaching a more appealing job, Damour notes, in order to attract more great teachers.
Still, it’s worth remembering that the rise of absenteeism isn’t solving these larger problems. It is adding to those problems.
Classrooms are more chaotic places when many students are there one day and missing the next. Educational inequality increases too, because absenteeism has risen more among disadvantaged students, including students with disabilities and those from lower-income households. “Studies show that even after adjusting for poverty levels and race, children who skip more school get significantly worse grades,” The Economist explained recently.
As Hedy Chang, who runs Attendance Works, a nonprofit group focused on the problem, told The Associated Press, “The long-term consequences of disengaging from school are devastating.”
Many schools are now trying to reduce absenteeism by reaching out to families. Some school officials are visiting homes in person, while others are sending texts to parents. (This Times story goes into more detail.)
It will be a hard problem to solve. Dee’s study focused on 2021-22 — which was two years ago, and the first year after the extended Covid closures — but he notes that absenteeism appears to have fallen only slightly last year. In Connecticut, which has some of the best data (and lower absentee rates than most states), 7.8 percent of students missed school on an average day two years ago, a far higher level than before the pandemic. Last year, the rate dipped only to 7.6 percent.
More on education
Americans are losing faith in the value of college: 45 percent of Gen Z say that a high school diploma is all they need for financial security.
After the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision, students must decide whether to mention race in their college applications.
THE LATEST NEWS
China’s biggest property developer, Country Garden, avoided default with a last-minute interest payment. But it has billions more to repay within the next year.
The company’s troubles are part of a real estate crisis threatening China’s economy.
Chinese people, sometimes posing as tourists, breached U.S. military sites up to 100 times in recent years in acts of potential espionage, The Wall Street Journal reports.
“Hostage diplomacy”: Iran is using an imprisoned E.U. official as a bargaining chip against the West.
Pope Francis visited Mongolia. Few Chinese Catholics crossed the border to see him, seemingly because they were afraid their government would punish them.
Trailing in the polls with an election on the horizon, Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is turning to divisive issues like refugees and crime.
War in Ukraine
Volodymyr Zelensky, who removed Ukraine’s defense minister after accusations of financial mismanagement, is struggling to eliminate corruption in his government.
Kim Jong-un is planning to visit Vladimir Putin in Russia to discuss supplying weapons.
People in a liberated Ukrainian village still lack electricity and water — and mines are everywhere. See images of the devastation.
The impeachment trial of the Texas attorney general, which starts today, will be a fight over the future of the Republican Party.
Jill Biden tested positive for Covid, but President Biden did not.
The ground floors of buildings, long valuable real estate, are now empty in cities like San Francisco and Washington.
New York City begins restricting short-term home rentals today. Thousands of listings are expected to disappear from Airbnb.
Other Big Stories
A rescue team broke through Antarctic ice and flew helicopters on a dangerous mission to reach a sick worker at a research station.
An audit accused state troopers in Connecticut of faking thousands of traffic stops — probably, it said, to game internal performance statistics.
To strengthen free speech on campus, universities need to bring civic education back to the heart of curriculums, Debra Satz and Dan Edelstein write.
Here’s a column by Michelle Goldberg on doppelgängers.
Feathers and flags: New York’s Caribbean community celebrated its heritage at a parade.
Fashion advice: Are you ever too old to wear vintage?
The Buffett look: The king of yacht rock influenced style as much as any designer.
Wellness retreat: The travel industry is catering to women who want help dealing with menopause.
Lives Lived: Marilyn Lovell became a celebrity as the wife of Jim Lovell, who captained the disaster-struck Apollo 13 moon mission. She died at 93.
Julio Urías: The Dodgers pitcher was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge.
College football: Duke toppled No. 9 Clemson last night, the first Blue Devils win over a top-10 opponent in 34 years.
An American upset: Madison Keys beat the No. 3 seed Jessica Pegula at the U.S. Open yesterday.
Playing today: Ben Shelton and Frances Tiafoe will face each other in an all-American quarterfinal tonight.
ARTS AND IDEAS
“The bass that made the Beatles”: In 1961, Paul McCartney bought a bass guitar that he played as the Beatles became famous. It can be heard on songs like “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout.” But it vanished eight years later, and has been missing since.
The Lost Bass Project, started by three Beatles fans, hopes to find it — and hundreds of people have responded to a request for tips.
More on culture
Steve Harwell, the former singer of Smash Mouth, known for the ’90s hits “All Star” and “Walkin’ on the Sun,” died at 56.
Thousands of people left the Burning Man festival after being stranded in the mud.
THE MORNING RECOMMENDS …
Freshen up cold sesame noodles with cucumbers and corn.
Cook with the best skillet Wirecutter has ever tested.
Work from your sofa with the best lap desk.
Watch an N.F.L. season preview tonight on The CW.
Here is today’s Spelling Bee. Yesterday’s pangrams were checkmate and matchmake.
And here are today’s Mini Crossword, Wordle, Sudoku and Connections.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
Alain Delaquérière contributed research to today’s newsletter.
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David Leonhardt writes The Morning, The Times’s flagship daily newsletter. He has previously been an Op-Ed columnist, Washington bureau chief, co-host of “The Argument” podcast, founding editor of The Upshot section and a staff writer for The Times Magazine. In 2011, he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. More about David Leonhardt
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