Absenteeism Still Chronic Problem

by Noah Bair ’24

During a press conference before the start of this school year, MCPS announced its Attendance Action Plan, which focused on lowering the county’s chronic absenteeism rate and making sure students are attending school on a regularly. Despite MCPS spotlighting an issue that is plaguing school districts across the country, attendance rates have barely improved in MCPS schools this year.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as having an unexcused absence for at least 10 percent of the total school days, or missing at least 18 days, a problem that resource counselor Kelly Singleton sees as a chain reaction. “If you’re not in class, you’re not learning, you’re not doing well in those classes, and then you’re not getting those credits,” she explained.

Chronic absenteeism has jumped to record high numbers since the Covid-19 Pandemic and a year of virtual learning, going from 19 percent of MCPS students being listed as chronically absent in calendar year in 2019 to 27 percent in calendar year 2023. After having 32 percent of high schoolers being chronically absent during the 2022-23 school year, that number has dropped to 29 percent for the first quarter of this current school year for all MCPS high schools. According to data in Performance Matters pulled by Pupil Personnel Worker LaJuana Maynard, the number of Sherwood students chronically absent by December this school year was 32 percent.

Principal Intern Jennifer Herman said that Sherwood needs to work to find the root cause of the issue and be a bridge for students. “We have a whole team approach to get kids back to school,” Herman noted. “We have action plans for students where we individualize everything to the student and the family for what they need.”

Sherwood puts an emphasis on not only making sure students who are absent for long periods of time return to school, but that their mental and physical state is in good condition. “If we don’t know where a kid is for 5 days, we want to know if they’re okay,” Herman emphasized. Every Wednesday, staff and administrators meet to discuss students who have been out of school unexcused multiple days, where the team will often reach out to parents and attempt to bridge the connection between the school and families, an important first step in bringing students back to the classroom. If that doesn’t work, there is the option to send someone out to the students’ home for a check, a more direct way of attempting to help to get the student to return.

MCPS data has revealed that African American, Hispanic, and low-income students are at the highest risk of chronic absenteeism. Years ago, MCPS followed a policy where if a student missed a certain percentage of school days, they would face the possibility of ‘Loss of Credit’ in classes if they continued to be absent. But, according to Steve Neff, the county’s Director of Pupil Personnel and Attendance Services, this policy was shown to disproportionately impact minority students. “We believe that a student’s grades should be reflective of their mastery of the course material, and not by behaviors such as attendance.”

In addition to those who cannot come to school based on their mental or physical state, there is also the problem of students who show up to school but do not come to classes. There are students who make the effort to wake up early and go to school but roam the halls or hide in the bathrooms during their classes. While Sherwood has attempted to eliminate so-called “hall walkers,” there remains a number of students who missed 25 percent or more of their classes during first semester.

Sherwood is dealing with an issue that has become one of, if not the biggest, facing schools in the modern day United States. It has become a top priority for MCPS to make sure students are in the classroom learning. In a post-COVID world where all schools are back to what they were before the pandemic, school systems are under pressure for attendance numbers that should start to look like what they once were again.