It’s well established that chronic absenteeism has skyrocketed since the pandemic. But a new analysis of federal data shows the problem may be worse than previously understood.

Two out of three students were enrolled in schools with high or extreme rates of chronic absenteeism during the 2021-22 school year — more than double the rate in 2017-18, the report found. Students who miss at least 10% of the school year, or roughly 18 days, are considered chronically absent.

The analysis, from Attendance Works and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, shows a fivefold increase in the percentage of elementary and middle schools with extreme rates, where at least 30% of students are chronically absent.

In addition, the researchers released an early look at 2022-23 figures from 11 states. The data shows that overall chronic absenteeism levels remain extremely high at 28%  — well above the pre-pandemic level of 16%.

Empty desks have a negative impact on both teachers and students who are still trying to make up for lost learning during the pandemic, said Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of Attendance Works.

“It makes teaching and learning much harder,” she said. She finds the increase at the elementary level especially alarming because absenteeism becomes “habit forming.”

Many students started preschool and kindergarten remotely during the early years of COVID and missed out on a normal transition into school. “When they start off not ever having a routine of attendance, what does that mean for addressing it in middle and high school?” she asked.

The analysis — the first of three researchers plan to release on the federal data — shows that the percentage of high schools with extreme rates increased from 31% to 56% during that time period. A November release will focus on demographic disparities and one in January will examine state-level trends.

Soaring absenteeism rates have contributed to declines in math and reading scores on national tests, the White House said last month. Despite billions available to schools to address learning loss, students can’t take advantage of extra help if they’re not in school. Districts are tackling the problem by dedicating staff to attendance, offering home visits with families and targeting voicemail messages to alert parents that their children’s absences are piling up. Experts say it takes multiple strategies to make a dent in what might seem an insurmountable challenge.

Read the full article about chronic absenteeism by Linda Jacobson at The 74.