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Chronic absenteeism in U.S. classrooms is presenting unique challenges to teachers

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

K-12 students are missing a lot of school. It's a problem known as chronic absenteeism, and it's something NPR's Education Desk is taking a closer look at this year. Nationwide, about 1 in 4 students were chronically absent last school year. And in some districts, those numbers are worse. Emily Files of member station WUWM spoke to two teachers whose Milwaukee school has felt pretty empty.

EMILY FILES, BYLINE: Lukas Wierer never thought that as a high school teacher in Wisconsin's biggest school district, he'd show up to an empty classroom. But that's what started happening in 2021, when Milwaukee Public Schools returned to in-person learning.

LUKAS WIERER: Some students just didn't come back.

FILES: Wierer's classes were small to begin with. One of his social studies electives only had 10 students. Some days, none of them were there.

WIERER: Almost 25% of my semester I spent alone by myself in the room because none of my 10 students showed up.

FILES: Chronic absenteeism skyrocketed nationwide during the pandemic. And while new research shows it's coming back down, it still has a long way to go. A student is chronically absent when they've missed 10% or more of the school year. Wierer says this level of absenteeism can cause a lot of problems.

WIERER: It's difficult to be successful in classes when you're missing that much school. And as a teacher, it's incredibly difficult to sequence content.

FILES: Last school year, 26% of U.S. students were chronically absent, according to the American Enterprise Institute. In Milwaukee, that figure is much higher - 37%. Lukas Wierer worked at Milwaukee's Obama School of Career and Technical Education, where attendance was already a challenge. The pandemic made it worse.

WIERER: It just felt like it deepened the wounds that already existed.

FILES: Obama serves mostly Black, low-income students. Students and staff say kids were missing school for a lot of reasons - mental health challenges, transportation issues, violence in their neighborhoods. There was also a wave of teacher departures that left some hard-to-fill vacancies - vacancies that got filled by virtual teachers.

WIERER: It's another whole wrinkle in how a school operates.

FILES: An Obama senior named Rochelle says she doesn't always feel motivated to go to school, and her virtual math instruction doesn't help.

ROCHELLE: When I need, like, one-on-one help, it's hard to get help through a screen. I have to walk up to the computer and show him what I'm talking about and stuff like that. So yeah, I don't like it at all. I feel like I'm not really getting what I need to get out of it for real.

FILES: We aren't using Rochelle's full name so she can talk freely about her attendance without hurting future job or academic prospects. Rose Peterson, an English teacher at Obama, says about half of her students show up on an average day.

ROSE PETERSON: You know, you might have a kid who hasn't been to school in three months and shows up, and you have to somehow make them feel welcome in the classroom and figure out how to catch them up on content. And I think that can be really difficult to figure out how to make all these pieces fit together in a logical way.

FILES: On the other hand, Peterson says, it is easier to teach to a class of 15 than a class of 30.

PETERSON: I also feel, like, weird acknowledging that. We used to have so much more active, vivacious kids with a lot of, you know, energy that wasn't always directed toward educational ends in the classroom. And I worry that since the pandemic, those kids still exist, but they just don't come to school at all anymore.

FILES: Attendance has improved some in Milwaukee, but it still isn't back to pre-pandemic numbers. The empty classroom got to be too much for social studies teacher Lukas Wierer. He says he didn't feel like he could be an effective teacher.

WIERER: Like, is this what I want to do with my career?

FILES: In the end, it wasn't. He left Obama, a school he otherwise loved, at the end of last year for a school with better attendance. For NPR News, I'm Emily Files in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKINSHAPE'S "AFTER MIDNIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Files
Emily became WUWM’s education reporter in August 2018 after spending four years in small-town Alaska.