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The School Attendance Crisis, and the Faith We Need to Fix It

Throughout January, even as the Omicron wave receded in New York, one of its most devastating impacts persisted: high absenteeism in schools. As writer Jessica Winter explored in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, while some of those absences are due to actual infections, positive cases, and close contacts, others are due to a different phenomenon: “Low attendance can create a feedback loop…if so many kids aren’t here, maybe mine shouldn’t be, either.” Said differently, the last two years appear to have made missing school more acceptable more often to more people. Changing that habit is going to be as crucial for our nation’s COVID recovery as widespread vaccination.

The research on the long-term effects of chronic or repeated school absences is ample and well-established. Missing twelve or more days in Kindergarten is correlated with lower achievement in first grade; attendance problems in later years can increase the risk of everything from dropping out of high school to suffering physical health challenges as an adult. This isn’t just a problem for individual children or families, either; McKinsey estimates the damage of COVID learning loss to the American economy at $128 billion to $188 billion each year that affected students enter the workforce—and that is without adding in the knock-on effects of increases in chronic absenteeism this year.

The crucial, varied benefits of routine school attendance are just some of the reasons why Partnership Schools worked so hard to open in person in the fall of 2020, and why we asked families to test or vaccinate their children in order to return to school after the Christmas holidays this year. Our families worked hard in January to obtain tests during days when they were scarce and lines for them were long—just one of many actions they take to live out their belief in the value of their children’s learning at school, every day.

To be sure, there are days when attendance is lower than we would hope. In the fall, Christian Dallavis profiled the efforts of the Partnership’s St. Thomas Aquinas in Cleveland—based on strategies they adapted from St. Athanasius in the South Bronx—to rally the entire community around daily attendance. As our entire nation grapples with a silent, slow-moving crisis that predated COVID and has become worse as a result of pandemic education policies, one aspect of St. Thomas and St. Athanasius’ approach stands out as critical.

St. Thomas sixth graders Dakota and Delbert celebrate the all-time high for students arriving on time.

As Christian explains, these two schools didn’t just pursue higher attendance for its own sake; deeply held, clearly shared beliefs compelled action. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, discerned that “we are always learning” is one of its root beliefs last year—and they concluded that students learn less when they are absent. So being in school each day isn’t just prudent; without it, the school betrays what it believes and is thus is less true to itself.

An attendance/on-time board posted at morning drop-off at St. Athanasius in the Bronx in 2017.

Root beliefs are at the heart of effective school culture, as Christian has previously explored. For beliefs to be truly the roots of a community, they need to be so fundamental that we feel compelled to align our actions with them, or else our community departs from its essential identity. And those actions, aligned with root beliefs, must shape our daily routines to the extent that, as Christian says, “by graduation, you could watch our students’ actions and know what they believe.”

A myriad of factors contribute to attendance challenges, particularly in economically stressed communities. Thus, a range of strategies—some personal, others institutional, and still others on the levels of public policy and persuasion—are essential if we as a nation are to overcome the slow-rolling crisis of school attendance, a crisis that pre-dated COVID.

But as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Athanasius schools’ approach suggests, strategies must be anchored in shared convictions if they are to be truly successful. We as a nation need to believe that every day in school matters.

One need look no further than the ways in which COVID policies failed our children in so many communities to understand that we have a crisis of belief in the value of each school day for every child. Dr. Ashish Jha, head of Brown University’s School of Public Health, reflected in December on the ways in which actions in response to COVID can reveal this crisis of belief. He asserted that jurisdictions where bars were open but schools were closed during the Omicron serge communicate that “They don’t care about kids—and they don’t care about COVID. Because bars spread COVID. Schools generally don’t.”  Our beliefs about learning and children must compel us to make sometimes hard choices, collectively and individually.

To believe that each school day matters for every child—and to believe it strongly enough to align public policy and collective action to it—is in some ways a manifestation of a long American tradition of believing in self improvement, a hallmark of American culture from Benjamin Franklin to James Clear. But for Christians, to believe in the power of each school day is to have faith in even a few things that are even more fundamental: the sacredness of the present moment, and the divine spark in every child.

After all, we believe that Christ came into a backwater village, into a working family, and from that unassuming place transformed our lives. We have to believe, then, in the power of every ordinary day and every classroom to be a place of transformation for children who are more than worthy of manifesting the holiness within them. As Our Lady Queen of Angels Kindergarten teacher Stephanie Burgos shared last month, her East Harlem classroom isn’t just the place where she teaches: “The Holy Spirit is here, in this room. God is here.” Only when we believe that strongly in what awaits each child in school will we begin to chip away at the attendance crisis that is in turn chipping away at our children’s future, and that of our nation as a whole.

At a time when cynicism about the future can be so tempting, it is even more important that we believe not just in the pragmatic value of school attendance, but in the infinite worth of every child, every classroom, and every day. And it is crucial that we act on that belief.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Partnership Schools.