Alaska students were absent from school at a higher rate than in any other state during the 2021-2022 school year, according to an analysis out Friday from the Associated Press.
The AP says nearly half of Alaska students missed at least 10% of the school year, which is considered chronic absenteeism. And the analysis, in collaboration with a Stanford University education professor, shows chronic absenteeism increased across the country as schools reopened for in-person learning following closures prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Becky Bohrer with the Associated Press in Alaska reported on the story in-state, along with AP national education reporter Bianca Vázquez Toness.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Bianca Vázquez Toness: So chronic absenteeism is sort of a red flag that something’s wrong, either at school or at home. Perhaps a child is sick, like really physically ill, (or) having mental health problems. Perhaps there’s insecurity, housing insecurity. Perhaps there is homelessness. Perhaps that family doesn’t feel comfortable in the school, or the child doesn’t connect with the curriculum that’s being offered. So we’ve found in looking at other states that this problem is worse among Latinos and Black and low-income students. And in Alaska, this is worse among Native students.
Casey Grove: Becky, did you talk to folks here in Alaska? And what did they tell you about this?
Becky Bohrer: Well, we talked to a number of people. I spoke with a teacher, for example, in Hoonah. And she said one of her experiences is that the school calendar doesn’t align well with the subsistence season, that it’s important for families to have their kids with them doing subsistence activities. And school is underway before a lot of those activities are even finished. She said before even a deer might be in the fridge, they’re already starting school. She mentioned that there are children who, in some families, are being raised by grandparents or great grandparents who carry historical trauma with them from terrible boarding school experiences within their families. There’s also situations where we have a lot of seasonal economies here. And maybe in the wintertime, families are taking their vacations. You know, those sorts of things don’t align with the school schedule. But I should also note that this is an issue that state officials have been talking about for a number of years and an issue that’s come up in school districts that right now they’re grappling with the question, “What do we do?”
Casey Grove: Yeah. Some of those things seem like longstanding issues, and like you said, the state school administrators have been talking about that for a while. But were there things with the pandemic that exacerbated those things or, I guess, added to them that you saw in your reporting?
Bianca Vázquez Toness: Nationally, in talking to families and talking to educators, we heard two different trends that seem to have made this worse. One is that during the time of remote learning, relationships with schools, between schools and families and students, became frayed, right? People didn’t see each other. And perhaps there was tension around the way school was being delivered or not delivered, right? And then there was also school educators and school leaders telling parents that school during that time could happen anywhere, anytime. We had to be creative and flexible, and we could learn online or learn in our backyards or wherever. And families got used to that. And there hasn’t been sort of an explicit kind of education or re-education campaign to, I guess, sell parents on the importance of school again. And there also, in some places, you know, haven’t been deliberate efforts to rebuild the relationships.
Casey Grove: When you talk to the school districts, what did they say they’re actually trying to do to confront this problem?
Bianca Vázquez Toness: Well, there are a lot of school districts out there, right? So it really depends on the school or the school district. There are a lot of things that some folks have done, from sending fliers or letters home, reminding people that school is important and telling them, you know, their child has missed, say, five days at the beginning of school in the first month, you know, “This is a problem, please get your your child back.” I’ve heard of some districts doing something called empathy interviews, where they, you know, approach the family in a gentle way and try to understand better what the obstacles are to getting to school. Some have also tried to rebuild relationships in some ways, but there’s still a lot of schools that haven’t, you know, started the types of parties and sort of community building activities that happened before school closed, and those things are important so that families feel like they’re a part of the community like they know their teachers and they know the principles. And when those things go away, it’s much easier to have conflict and for, sort of, small problems to alienate a parent and a student.
Casey Grove: OK, so now I’m going to jump in a time machine, and I’m going to go back to my teenage self. And I used to skip school, I will admit it. So, beep, boop, I’m in my time machine, I popped out, my back doesn’t hurt anymore. Why is this a problem? I understand that, you know, this is beyond just single teenager deciding to skip school. There are many other reasons that kids don’t go to school, or there are reasons that they stay home to help their family and different things like that. But for me, teenage self, why do we care?
Bianca Vázquez Toness: Well, you know, I don’t know much about what you were like as a teenager, or the socio economic conditions of your family or what was going on there. But we know that for a lot of kids, you know, who don’t have parents who can put food on the table, or don’t have advanced degrees, that it’s really important to be in school, right? You learn how to read, you learn algebra, you are much more likely to graduate from high school, which we know is really important for people’s economic futures. And there are a lot of other things that happen in school, right? Besides learning, you socialize, you have friends, and those things are really important, especially for the low-income students among us, which make up a lot of students. I don’t know that the number in Alaska but, you know, in some Boston schools where I live, it’s like 60 or 70% of students.