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OKLAHOMA CITY — Math was a struggle for Jami Cole throughout her years of schooling, and she can pinpoint exactly where it began.
While her first-grade classmates learned foundational math skills, Cole was sick in the hospital for months of the school year.
The same thing happened again in third grade. While her teacher covered the basics of multiplication and division, Cole missed months of school because of an illness.
She said those absences impacted her for the rest of the time she was a student, particularly in math, a subject known for building on previous lessons.
Now a teacher of 23 years and the administrator of the 63,000-member Oklahoma Edvocates Facebook page, Cole recognizes similar signs in her elementary students who are chronically absent.
“Even in elementary, there’s so much that we’re expected to cover and get through that any time you’re gone you’re literally behind,” Cole said. “There’s just not enough hours in the day to go back and catch you up.”
The rate of chronic absenteeism, reflecting the number of students who miss 10% or more of the school year, has grown both in Oklahoma and nationwide since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the U.S Department of Education.
In the two school years that preceded COVID-19, 18.6% of Oklahoma students were chronically absent.
That number dipped in the 2019-20 school year to 16.4% and then rocketed past 20% in 2020-21, according to Education Department data compiled by Attendance Works, a San Francisco-based organization focused on student absenteeism.
The rate worsened in the 2021-22 school year when more than 159,300 Oklahoma students, or 22.8%, were chronically absent. The national average that year was 29.7%, reflecting what Attendance Works said was an “unprecedented wave of chronic absenteeism” spreading across the country.
Sixty-five percent of all U.S. public schools had at least 20% of their students chronically absent that school year. Forty-three percent of all schools had “extreme levels” of chronic absence, affecting 30% or more of the student body.
Oklahoma hasn’t released statewide attendance data for 2022-23, but the rate remains elevated among the 11 states that have. In those states, absenteeism rates improved by only 2% last school year, according to data Attendance Works compiled.
The organization’s executive director, Hedy Chang, called the issue of chronic absenteeism an “all-hands-on-deck moment.”
Attendance Works recommends schools learn the specific barriers to attendance that their students experience before crafting a response to those unique challenges, among other guidance.
“Turning back this surge in chronic absenteeism must be a national, state, district, school and community priority, because it is affecting the success of efforts to help students recover and thrive as the pandemic recedes,” Chang said in a statement.
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