But this week, the Virginia Board of Education shot down a proposal to extend that suspension to the 2022-2023 school year, meaning that for the first time since classrooms went virtual, attendance will be considered in school accreditation.
“It is entirely the wrong message,” Board President Daniel Gecker said of the suspension proposal. “If you think about the kids, we want to get them in school. We are not asking schools to do something that they cannot do. What we are emphasizing is the need to focus on this.”
Chronic absenteeism has been an issue across the country as schools attempt to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and get students back into the classroom. Federal data shows that during the 2021-2022 school, more than 70 percent of schools saw increases in chronic student absenteeism since the onset of the pandemic.
In Virginia, about 27 percent of schools had a chronic absenteeism rate above 25 percent for the 2021-2022 school year, according to a survey conducted by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents and presented at the board meeting. In the two years before the pandemic, about 2 to 4 percent of the state’s 132 school divisions had a chronic absenteeism rate that high.
“Absenteeism is as high as it’s ever been,” said Todd Rogers, a public policy professor at Harvard University who studies absenteeism and launched EveryDay Labs, an attendance intervention program. “It’s hard to learn what happens in school if you’re not there.”
Schools can earn one of three rankings for each factor used in accreditation: Level 1 is at or above the state benchmark, Level 2 is near the benchmark, and Level 3 is well below the benchmark. Schools that receive one or more Level 3 rankings are deemed “accredited with conditions.” Those that fail to address Level 3 school-quality indicators will be denied accreditation.
Level 1 is generally a chronic absenteeism rate at 15 percent or lower. Level 2 is greater than 15 percent but less than 25 percent; Level 3 is 25 percent or more.
A Virginia Education Association analysis estimated that if chronic absenteeism had been considered as an accreditation factor for the 2021-2022 school year, 58 additional schools would have failed to receive full accreditation — a 31 percent increase from the 190 schools that were accredited with conditions this year.
The decision also comes amid an anticipated revision of the state’s system to evaluate schools. The push is coming from Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who was skeptical of the high number of Virginia’s public schools that were deemed fully accredited, despite a decline in scores on state tests. Youngkin has called for an overhaul to the state’s accreditation system, which also measures school performance with metrics like state assessments and dropout rates, as part of his broader effort to declare that the state’s schools need improvement. For the 2021-2022 school year, 89 percent of Virginia’s public K-12 schools are fully accredited, compared with 92 percent in the 2019-2020 school year.
Education advocates and stakeholders anticipate proposed revisions from the state Department of Education in coming months.
The board moved to suspend the measurement last year in response to school leaders who noticed significant upticks in chronic absenteeism due to recommended quarantine and isolation guidelines for those exposed to and experiencing symptoms of covid-19.
The Education Department proposed the extended suspension again this year in part as a response to school leaders who said they were concerned about reaching accreditation.
Scott Brabrand, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said school leaders have continued to experience high levels of absenteeism from cases of the flu, covid-19 and RSV. He said that there are many factors contributing to absenteeism outside schools and that it’s difficult to expect schools to have the resources to recover absenteeism rates.
“We all agree that attendance is important,” Braband said. “But this is a flawed indicator to be using, and it’s not fair to schools.”