Department of Education finds chronic absences double nationwide since COVID-19 pandemic

Ice cream sandwiches and a dance party recently welcomed a group of sixth-graders at McDonough Middle School in Hartford, Connecticut. The group had been in school for 90% of April, and the event was a way to award and encourage more students to attend school regularly.

McDonough Middle School principal Marjorie Rice said she has seen results since they first started holding the events.

"Our efforts have shown in our data that we're improving our chronic absenteeism, reducing that rate, improving our average daily attendance, but most importantly, students who maybe were disengaged in the beginning were starting to see them coming to school every day," Rice told CBS News' Meg Oliver.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, chronic absences in U.S. schools have doubled. Before the pandemic, about 8 million students nationwide were chronically absent. It is now estimated that 16 million students are now considered to be chronically absent.

The U.S. Department of Education defines chronic absences as students who miss at least 15 days of school in a year. Trauma, family responsibilities, health, transportation problems, poverty, housing and food insecurity all contribute to chronic absences, according to the DOE.

"We are having an attendance crisis as a country," said Hedy Chang, founder and Executive Director of Attendance Works, an initiative aimed at addressing chronic absence.

Chang said schools need to make kids feel connected and engaged, offer tutoring and mentoring, expand summer learning and do at-home visits when kids aren't showing up.

"It starts with that outreach. We need to make sure that we're reaching out to students and families," said Chang.

Hartford Public Schools has tried implementing this by having student engagement specialists like Ashley Jackson visit the homes of students who are not showing up to class.

Eighth-grader Ashley Cuadra is one of the students Jackson has helped. During the pandemic, Cuadra's family moved, and she no longer qualified for school transportation. Jackson taught her how to take the public bus and rode the route with her.

Cuadra now returns the favor by reaching out to students who are often absent by stressing the importance of education.

"You need education to get further in life because when you get older, you're probably going to want to have your career. And you can't make a career out of no education because that education's gonna get you far in life," she said.

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