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Ky. districts say pandemic had a lasting impact on student attendance

School desks
Thomas Galvez
School desks

Leaders from two rural Kentucky districts told a committee of state lawmakers Tuesday that schools are still dealing with high levels of chronic absenteeism.

Like most of the country, Kentucky schools saw a significant hit to student attendance as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While attendance rates have begun to rebound, more students are still missing weeks of schooling.

Joey Kilburn, Director of Pupil Personnel for Simpson County Schools, told the Interim Joint Education Committee that the pandemic has had an “ongoing impact” on student attendance.

“We're not obviously where we were at the depths of the pandemic,” said Kilburn, whose department monitors student attendance. “We've come back, but we've not come back to where we were before.”

In 2018-2019, the last school year before the pandemic, 18% of Kentucky students were chronically absent, according to the Kentucky Department of Education. Under state law, students are chronically absent if they miss 10% or more of the school year. That’s usually around 17 days.

During the 2020-2021 school year, rates of chronic absenteeism nearly doubled in Kentucky, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

The rate dropped in 2021-2022 to 25%. That was better than the national average of 30% for the same year, but it meant more than a quarter of Kentucky's students missed a significant amount of instruction.

Research suggests poor attendance in the early grades is linked to poor literacy skills, and chronic absences in middle and high school are linked to drop out.

Attendance data for the 2022-2023 school year will be released on Oct. 31, along with test scores and other school accountability measures. Early data suggests chronic absenteeism remained an issue nationally last year.

Among the 11 states who reported their 2022-2023 attendance data early, an average of about 28% of students were chronically absent. That’s down from 30% for the same 11 states in the prior year. Attendance Works, which compiled the data, said figures show that nationally chronic absenteeism remains “very high.” Kentucky was not one of the 11 states included in the early group.

Kilburn told lawmakers he believes the pandemic’s quarantine and isolation procedures changed the culture around attendance.

“You create an attitude about well, ‘Being here must not really be important, because they'll send me home pretty willy-nilly, like it's not a big deal,’” he said.

Boyd County Schools Director of Pupil Personnel Marci Prater said her district is working to meet the mental health needs of students who struggle with attendance due to anxiety.

“We're meeting them at the doors in the mornings, making sure they're having an easy transition from home to school, and we are checking on them throughout the day,” she said.

Kilburn said school leaders should celebrate the positive things students and staff are bringing to the school environment, engage students, parents and community and respond appropriately to bullying.

“Improving attendance is about making your schools a place that people want to be and a place that works for the students,” Kilburn said.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

Jess is LPM's Education and Learning Reporter. Jess has reported on K-12 education for public radio audiences for the past five years, from the swamps of Southeast Louisiana at WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio, to the mountains of North Carolina at WUNC in Chapel Hill. Her stories have aired on national programs and podcasts, including NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition, Here & Now and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. A Louisville native, Jess has her bachelor's degree from Centre College, and her masters in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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