While data shows the percentage of students deemed chronically absent rose across the state this past pandemic-impacted school year, the number of students consistently missing school soared at two local public school districts.
According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the percentage of students in Salem who missed more than 10% of school days jumped from 24.4% in the 2019-2020 school year to 30.2% this past year. In Peabody, the rate of chronic absenteeism more than doubled, from 15.5% to 33.1%.
By comparison, the number of chronically absent students in Danvers went from 10.7% to 11.6%, and in Beverly, the percentage jumped from 11.6% to 20.5%.
Both Salem Superintendent Stephen Zrike and Peabody Superintendent Josh Vadala said chronic absenteeism is an issue which predates — but was exacerbated by — the pandemic.
“One of the things that is challenging about this is there is chronic absenteeism in previous years, and then there is chronic absenteeism this year,” Vadala said. “Chronic absenteeism is something that we've always really taken a look at, and over the past three years we’ve really tried to address it and we’ve seen a nice decrease, but this year it's really spiked up.”
State data shows the rate of chronic absenteeism in Peabody was 18% during the 2017-2018 school year and fell to 17.6% the following year.
“[Chronic absenteeism] was something that came up in my research of the district and in discussions with people in the district who are currently working here,” Vadala, who joined the district in 2020, said. “It was something that was being addressed and something we wanted to continue to address.”
Vadala pointed out that many school districts saw a large increase in the number of chronically absent students when they switched to hybrid learning models. But he acknowledged that Peabody saw a steeper increase than other districts.
“Peabody as a city was hit hard by the pandemic in the community, and that impacted our kids' ability to come to school consistently and attend school remotely,” he said. “Many people had to quarantine, and many people had to be in isolation.”
Lessons from Holyoke
Salem’s challenges with chronic absenteeism go back several years. Former Superintendent Margarita Ruiz had launched efforts to combat the problem before her departure in 2019.
Zrike came to Salem in 2020 after serving five years as a state-appointed receiver in Holyoke Public Schools. There, he helped to bring chronic absenteeism down from 29% to 23%, with the biggest change at the high school.
“One of the most powerful things we did was phone banking, and took all the kids who were chronically absent by December and called all the families across the schools,” Zrike said. “It was just to have a conversation. ‘We noticed your child has missed such-and-such days of school. Is there anything we can do to better support you so your child can be in school?’
“Sometimes it’s bus issues. Sometimes it’s bullying. Sometimes it’s issues around health, a medical condition. Sometimes it's a lack of information about the school schedule,” Zrike continued. “That helped us then find solutions.”
By the end of the efforts, Zrike’s administration launched a “Strive For Five” program that challenged and rewarded students for not missing more than five days of school for the entire year — a level of absenteeism that runs far below chronic levels.
Similar work is now happening in Salem, according to Zrike. So far, the focus has been on households with students who are the most frequently absent.
“They’ve been contacting every family at least once a month — earlier in the year it was more frequently — just to check in, to see what the family needed, what supports need to be in place,” Zrike said.
Outreach for English learners
Vadala said Peabody also has and continues to take a variety of steps to try and lower the rate of chronic absenteeism.
“One of the things we did is we hired a number of translators to do some outreach so they could speak with families in their native language, so they can build that trust with families,” Vadala said, noting that the rate of chronic absenteeism is higher among students who do not speak English as their primary language. “Some families who might be newer to system might not have the same requirements where they are coming from, so we want to make sure we have someone who can talk to them in their native language and about what resources we have for them, how important it is to be in school and how we can support them.”
According to Vadala, working with parents is one of the most effective ways to help students— especially younger students— get to school.
“As kids get older, we really want to take the time to get to know each student and understand their unique circumstance and what it is that is causing these absences," he said. "We really want to make sure those relationships are paramount, understanding that each student’s case is unique from another. There are things we can do to address absenteeism overall, but really it is about understanding those relationships and understanding each student and their families in order to get them the resources they need to help get them into school.”
Vadala said the district is also looking to improve mental and behavioral health services, by investing in school adjustment counselors and psychologists.
“It is making sure we are creating a safe and supportive environment where kids feel welcome, where kids want to come, because there are kids who are resistant to school and we want to make sure we are creating an opportunity for kids to access resources," he said. "We’ve really talked a lot about supporting the mental and emotional health of our students and their families, so if we are able to provide some of those services in school, students are more apt to go to school because they have access to that and can cope better with some of the things they are struggling with.”
Zrike also emphasized the importance of building relationships with families and ensuring students have adequate access to the resources they need.
Percentage 'isn't a surprise'
Both Zrike and Vadala said the impact of the pandemic and remote-learning period on the percentage of students chronically missing school isn’t shocking, even if it is disappointing.
“While the pandemic this year we’ve seen some increases— that isn’t a surprise. In fact, it was much trickier this year with attendance because you don't want to be encouraging students to come to school when they’re ill,” Zrike said. “We used to tell students you can come to school if you have cold like systems, unless you have a fever, but this is a year where we’ve been very strict on when kids can come to school and not. It’s been a shift in terms of the messaging.”
Vadala said in addition to making sure students don't come in to school when exhibiting any symptoms of illness, schools also had the challenge of engaging students and encouraging them to attend school even when the district was remote.
“It is very difficult to engage to engage 100% of families from remote,” he said, adding that despite district efforts to address any existing digital divide, some students faced technical challenges. “Many families were challenged by logging on virtually, and that is why in Peabody we tried to move up our dates for full in-person learning ahead of the state, because we recognized that our students' attendance is better than if they are engaging remotely.”
On the flip side, Vadala said some families found remote learning to be a more approachable way to attend school.
"Different families were affected in different ways by the pandemic," he said, explaining that the district is working to create a permanent remote option for students. "We want to make sure we have multiple different options, multiple different pathways. If it was a virtual issue, we want to make sure that person is still in school. What we need to do is figure out for this student what is a better model. Absent in school or out of school, we need to look at chronic absenteeism holistically. It's really drilling down into this number and looking at 'what does it mean?' and really making sense of it and determining 'who are the students? What makes them tic?' and providing as many options to support them as we can."