MCPS struggles to contain a problem sweeping across the nation
The room was slowly filling up as the first-period bell rang. People trickled in, and some pulled out phones while others chatted away about plans for the weekend. There was just one slight problem; the room wasn’t a classroom, portable or band room, but rather one of Blair’s many bathrooms.
If you go to Blair, that probably comes as no surprise. It seems every week or so that the administration tries something new to get students to go to and stay in class. After taking a closer look, this new wave of absenteeism seems to be impacting Blair in unprecedented ways.
A growing problem
Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10 percent or more of class, has nearly doubled across the country in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even years after the pandemic, the attendance rates in many U.S. institutions have struggled to return to pre-pandemic levels.
The problem of truancy has existed particularly in MCPS long before the pandemic. English teacher Adam Clay, who has taught at Blair for two decades, witnessed how COVID-19 exacerbated the problem. “[Truancy] was getting worse over time, but it’s significantly worse after the pandemic,” Clay says.
Throughout the pandemic, MCPS released a form that students filled out to be excused if they were absent from class. The form was rife for abuse by students, allowing many of them to miss out on class whenever they felt like it.
In response to rising truancy rates across the county, MCPS started the development of a “comprehensive absenteeism plan” in March to encourage chronically absent students to return to class. The problem of absenteeism was “becoming overwhelming,” County Council member Natali Fani-González says.
At Blair, an increasing number of students don’t attend class or wander the hallways after getting to class. There are numerous reasons that motivate students to skip class. “Why people skip class varies a lot. Some people just don’t feel like going to class,” senior Josh Brown says. “Sometimes it’s actually urgent like ‘Oh I forgot something at home that I need or I had a test that I forgot.’”
Other times, students can simply feel tired of interacting in class. Freshman Abel skipped class because he didn’t want to deal with his teachers. “My teachers annoy me,” Abel says.
The expectations for behavior have also changed for the students that do attend class. After the pandemic, students are more likely to be distracted in class. “If you’re present physically, but your earbuds are in and your phone is out, you’re not really present in class,” Clay says.
A lack of consequences
MCPS previously utilized a “loss of credit” system, where students were at risk of losing class credit if they had too many unexcused absences in that class. Specifically, students that had more than five unexcused absences were at risk of losing credit for that class and had to personally meet with their teacher to discuss a solution. Under the same system, being tardy to class three times translated to one unexcused absence.
MCPS discarded that system in May 2010 and no longer utilizes a standardized system of punishing absences across the county. As a result, many school systems are struggling to motivate students to attend class. SGA teacher Kevin Shindel notes that that makes it difficult for Blair to punish truant students. “There's certainly nothing system-wide for missing class or showing up late,” Shindel says.
Moreover, a large portion of assignments is now available online, meaning students can still earn passing grades in classes even with sparse attendance. “Students can still pass the class with the 50 percent rule and doing a couple of assignments, and attendance isn’t part of that equation,” Clay says. Additionally, some teachers still hold office hours for students that are missing, a remnant leftover from the pandemic.
Blair has also adopted generous attendance policies, which can inadvertently incentivize students to show up tardy or leave in the middle of class. Teachers have been told that even if students are only in their classes for a minute, they should be marked present. This system allows students to skip class but only be marked tardy, a marking which holds significantly less weight than absences.
In response to this problem, Blair increased the number of teachers and security on patrol in the hallways to discourage wandering. However, the effectiveness of this increase in absenteeism is questionable. “I’ve never heard of people getting really caught [for skipping class],” Brown says.
Students can still routinely skip class and sit on benches in places like Blair Boulevard, despite the presence of security. In some cases, students even feel that their teachers won’t enact any consequences. “[My teachers] really don’t care,” Abel says.
The impacts of absenteeism
Despite the lack of county-regulated consequences, skipping class still significantly hurts a student’s chance of success. Many studies find that attendance is a major predictor of student outcomes, with students who are chronically absent at a much higher risk of dropping out. Indeed, students who are absent achieve at lower levels than their peers who regularly attend class.
Oftentimes, attending class is a prerequisite for performing well at school. “The number one indicator of success is being present in class. I think if you're in class and you complete the work, you're gonna do well in high school,” Clay says.
Still, teachers simply cannot teach many classes if students don’t attend. Subjects that rely on physical tools, such as foundations of technology or art, still require students to be physically present for them to learn. Additionally, not all teachers can move all instructional materials online. “Sometimes, teachers try to structure their classes so the work that is most important can only be done in a class with other people,” Shindel says.
Addressing the problem
Despite these systemic issues, many individual teachers are taking steps to address the impacts of chronic absenteeism. For chronically absent students, teachers work individually to find times when students can make up classwork or catch up on missed lessons. Blair’s administration is also aware of the problem. “It comes up in every staff meeting … I’m sure they’re discussing it in the leadership team,” Clay says.
That says, there is only so much that the administration can do. Montgomery County as a whole has determined that there are limits to the punishments for absences, meaning that Blair cannot implement its own policies which violate the county’s. “This is a county's decision. It's not an individual school's decision,” Shindel says.
It’s clear that there is no one solution to rising absenteeism. Despite rapidly rising truancy rates across the county, there are fewer policies in place to deal with absenteeism than before. While a solution to the overall problem seems out of reach, MCPS is taking action by proposing the “comprehensive absenteeism plan”. In the meantime, staff will have to deal with chronic absenteeism and its effects across the county.
Alexander Liu. Hi, I'm Alex (he/him) and I'll be a staff writer for SCO this year. I'm passionate about public policy and international relations. In my free time, I enjoy drawing and watching terrible rom-coms. More »