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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Amid nationwide struggle to rebound school attendance to pre-COVID numbers, one school district stands out

 (Molly Quinn/The Spokesman-Review)

North Central High School Junior Cyrus Crider woke up on a school day last school year, imagining school friends and the warm faces of the teachers who made them feel seen and loved by urging Crider to come to school.

But anxious thoughts of missing assignments and the social politics of school outweighed any motivation to attend, and the school day went on without Crider.

“When it comes down to it, when I’d wake up in the morning, I knew I needed to get to school,” said Crider, who uses the pronoun they. “But there’s something in your brain that’s not letting you. Even if you try really hard, it’s something that’s blocking you.”

Crider’s experience isn’t unique in the nation or state, where the rate of “chronic absenteeism” has doubled emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proportion of chronically absent students doubled from 15% to 30% between the 2018-19 school year, the last full one before the pandemic, and 2022-23, the latest year with available data.

It’s not that kids are just cutting class; regular attendance factors in excused absences: for illness, doctor appointments, school activities, family vacations, suspensions.

Students who missed 10% or more of school for any reason, averaging two days each month or 18 days of their 180 state-mandated school calendar, are chronically absent, leaving schools in attempts to lure their pupils back to the classroom.

The trend could signal an attitude shift emerging from the pandemic, said Thomas Dee, a Stanford University Graduate School of Education researcher who focuses lately on COVID trends in education.

“Fundamentally what we’re seeing is a broad failure of our children to re-engage academically in the wake of the pandemic as they return to schools,” Dee said. “It’s troubling because we know, unsurprisingly, that regular school attendance matters for student learning.”

Learning suffers when kids aren’t in school, Dee said, and not just for the absent student. Kids thrive when their peers are consistent, and instruction time is lost when teachers have to bring up to speed their absent students on what they’ve missed.

How the county compares

Spokane-area schools reflect the national trend for the most part. In districts of Spokane, Central Valley and Cheney, roughly 17% of students were chronically absent in the 2018-19 school year. In the 2022-23 school year, roughly 29% of Spokane’s 29,500 students were chronically absent, while Central Valley and Cheney both had around 31%. They have 14,700 and 5,700 students enrolled, respectively.

Northern neighbor Mead School District stands out in the county. The district serving 10,400 students had a faster rebound in the years coming back from COVID and less of an increase in absent students from 2018-19 to 2022-23, from 9% to 17%.

Dee researched extensively post-pandemic academic recovery challenges, including lagging attendance and exodus of students from public schools.

“The fact that kids aren’t in school also vexes other efforts in academic recovery,” Dee said. “The things that schools might be trying to do around tutoring or instructional enhancement or noninstructional supports for students can’t work as well if students aren’t in the building.”

These districts, the three biggest in the county, also have a notable proportion of students classified as low income. Spokane is 62% low income, Central Valley 48% and Mead 36%.

In these districts and in general, students from low-income families tend to have higher rates of chronic absenteeism, due to several factors: access to transportation, health care and child care, Dee listed.

“Those existed before the pandemic, but the change that occurred over the pandemic was large and broad and fairly universal,” Dee said.

The key in the attendance trend is the change emerging from the pandemic; while higher proportions of low-income students were chronically absent, similar declines in attendance occurred among students in wealthy and middle class families.

In a January report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dee examined aggregate attendance data and other trends, like decreasing enrollment and poor mental health in youths, to find statistically significant suggestions to explain the attendance cliff.

Dee’s research suggests a key factor distinguishing schools with a quicker rebound in attendance: In the midst of the pandemic, schools that brought kids back to in-person learning sooner tended to show more of a return to pre-COVID attendance numbers.

“I want to stress this is only suggestive, but in places that kept their schools closed during that first full school year under the pandemic, parents and students fell out of the habit or ceased to see great value in regular school attendance, and that sustained in those places,” Dee said. “Sometimes we refer to this hypothesis as norm erosion.”

Mead’s example suits Dee’s hypothesis: The district was the first in the region to open schools during COVID; Mead students returned to school anywhere from five to seven months earlier than their peers in Spokane and Central Valley. Perhaps in those months, families acclimated to learning from home, Dee said.

“Kids fell out of the habit, and parents, too, of valuing regular school attendance,” Dee hypothesized.

Mead students were online for three months after their schools closed with the rest of the state in March 2020. They then reopened at the start of the 2020-21 school year while most other schools in the state kept students at home. The return to in-person was optional, with some students favoring fully virtual schooling.

“We were able to bring a lot back,” said Josh Westermann, director of student and family services in Mead.

The decision was controversial at the time; it contradicted recommendations of numerous public health agencies, including the Spokane Regional Health District, Washington State Department of Health and the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Spokane and Central Valley brought kids back in person much slower than their northern counterparts, phasing in their students’ return to school based on age. Spokane invited all students back to school by March 2021, a year after schools closed. By mid-April, all in-person Central Valley students were back.

While Dee’s research highlighted a possible catalyst of the attendance cliff, he stressed that there may be an overemphasis on the cause rather than a solution. Like treating a fever, he analogized, a physician wouldn’t dwell too much on its source.

“People for all kinds of reasons, political and otherwise, want to relitigate the school closures,” he said. “I think we’re spending correspondingly too little time making sure school districts are adopting the evidence-based practices we know can help improve school attendance.”

Treating the fever

Dee suggested a cheap and effective way schools can bring their kids back: better messaging. Schools should send timely notifications home about students’ attendance, and do so in an encouraging, nonjudgmental manner.

“They can be more effective if they don’t just say, ‘Hey, your kid missed school,’ but if they give them a kind of peer comparison saying, ‘Here’s how much school your child has missed relative to other kids in the school or in their classroom,’ ” Dee said.

Spokane uses peer comparisons in “nudge messages” sent to families; the district sends weekly updates of chronically absent students to schools, and they send messaging as they see fit. Often, parents aren’t aware of how a doctor’s appointment here or a vacation day there can rack up to a chronically absent student, said Scott Kerwein, Spokane Public Schools director of student success. Messages have a positive tone: perhaps offering support, giving a factoid about the benefit to attending or celebrating attendance.

“Some parents didn’t have great school experiences themselves,” Kerwein said. “The last thing you want is for every communication from the district to be negative.”

If it’s their nudge messages, any other one of the district’s attendance-boosting strategies or a combination, it appears to be working, Kerwein said. Districtwide, regular attendance went up 7% last school year, he said.

Mead’s social comparison strategy is less targeted than Dee’s proposition. Each September, schools celebrate attendance awareness month: through challenges and rewards, naming students with perfect attendance in morning announcements and friendly competitions between grade levels.

“We’re trying to highlight the kids who are doing a good job getting to school,” Westermann said.

Westermann said last year, Mead emphasized targeted intervention to students who continued to be absent. In some cases, they assemble a team unique to each student in a community engagement meeting, a strategy also employed in Spokane, to determine specific barriers and how they should be addressed. Often, it’s mental health, family dynamics, academic struggles or social stressors that need attention.

“They aren’t just skipping school and going and doing whatever. There’s reasons why they aren’t going to school,” Westermann said. “These community engagement meetings are where we can really get to the bottom of what supports families need.”

Mental health, Westermann said, is a common reason students miss school. It’s a growing problem for youths around the nation, and COVID-induced isolation didn’t help, Westermann said.

Crider missed school largely for mental health reasons, sometimes hospitalized or receiving treatment for their anxiety, including a multiday-a-week behavioral health program at Providence that teaches youth skills in self-care and coping mechanisms.

The program instilled Crider with skills to regulate their emotions.

“I started to understand there are ways to be happier when stuff’s getting rough,” Cyrus said.

Spokane Public Schools is addressing barriers that may exist between a kid and their school by integrating basic needs into schools themselves. The district recently opened two new school-based health clinics at Shadle Park and North Central high schools, like one that opened at Rogers High School in 2020. In theory, a student could make an appointment at a clinic in their school and miss one class period compared to a full day.

“We need food closets, we need clothing, we need a lot more of the basic needs alongside academics and alongside being involved,” Kerwien said, “so that our students and families see the schoolhouse as more than academic learning.”

Other Spokane Public Schools initiatives include the push to expand extracurricular offerings to connect kids to their schools and peers outside of academic engagement.

“Sometimes when you wake up, you feel like you don’t want to go do something,” said Becky Ramsey, director of teaching and learning in the district. “OK, let’s get you to school, and you’re going to get there, and you’re going to get to do this fun thing and you’re going to forget you didn’t even want to go in the first place.”

Like other districts in the county, Central Valley seeks to increase attendance through multiple strategies, namely targeting instruction and schooling alternatives.

Superintendent John Parker asked students in an advisory group representing several grade levels, “What are we doing on a day-to-day basis on activities and classroom learning that makes it fun and engaging?”

More field trips and more hands-on and experimental opportunities, students reported.

The district ramped up career-readiness programs that engage students with “experiences similar to what they might encounter out there in the world, especially the work world,” Parker said.

The district offers several alternative schools, like career-focused, project-based learning for high -schoolers at Spokane Valley Tech that last year offered programs in manufacturing, engineering and fire science.

Other alternative programs seek to meet kids where they are, like virtual learning options for any grade level. The district projects 130 students to enroll in the virtual high school next year, setting their own schedule.

“We have a rekindled sense of purpose,” Parker said. “We’ve redefined how we’re going to serve students who don’t want to go to school in person.”

Other programs are designed with the intention of uplifting students who’ve fallen behind in credits, possibly due to absenteeism. Parker said he doesn’t want these students to feel hopeless, exacerbating lack of engagement.

It’s a feeling familiar to Crider, disparaged by stacks of missing assignments and perceived judgment from teachers who make school feel like a “punishment.” Under the structure of traditional high school, Crider suffered.

Next school year, Crider is enrolling at On Track Academy, an alternative school in the Spokane district. They hope to attend more schooldays, motivated by education that translates to their post-grad aspirations to work in child care.

The school allows students to personalize their education and develop a plan for their future. Crider said On Track has a program to help students earn a certificate needed to work in a day care.

“It’ll help a lot more with not necessarily just getting the academics done, but more of being there and experiencing things to understand the world,” they said.

Crider said there are misconceptions surrounding absenteeism; often students are facing their own struggles, and school isn’t a priority. They don’t know what the solution is to increase attendance, but judgment and shame aren’t it.

“A misconception is that someone who is chronically absent is deemed as a bad student,” Crider said. “You could be a perfectly fine student and going through a really hard time in life and just not be able to be at school.”