STUDENTS MISSING SCHOOL | 30% chronically absent in Baltimore County elementary schools
BALTIMORE (WBFF) — A Project Baltimore investigation has found fewer and fewer students are attending public school in Maryland on a regular basis. Alarming new data show attendance is down, and chronic absenteeism is up, especially in one local district.
Chronic Absenteeism is defined by the state as a student who misses more than 10 percent of school, or 19 days, over an entire school year. It’s not just a barrier to student learning. It can also be illegal.
“Our goal is to get the kids in school. Our goal isn't necessarily to criminalize anyone, but sometimes to get the kids in school, you got to go to a courtroom,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger.
According to state law, a student is considered truant when they miss more than 20 percent of the school days, without a legal reason, or 37 days, over an entire year. Parents can be fined $50 a day or receive three days in jail on a first offense. Shellenberger says his office is seeing an increase in truancy cases.
“There is no easy solution. We don't like prosecuting. Judges don't like putting in jail. And even if you do put in jail, the hammer is not very big. And in fact, it is not much of an incentive at all when it comes to sending the kids to school,” Shellenberger told Project Baltimore.
Throughout Maryland, students not attending class is a growing problem. In 2019, 19 percent of students statewide were considered chronically absent. By 2021, it jumped to 22 percent. And the school system, in the Baltimore region, that’s seeing the largest increase is Baltimore County.
The Baltimore County School Board discussed chronic absenteeism at a meeting in August, where it was recognized as a significant problem that’s getting worse.
In Baltimore County, overall attendance is dropping. From 2017 to 2020, the attendance rate held steady around 93 percent. In 2021, it fell to 90 percent. In the fourth quarter of last school year, it was down to 88 percent. And that’s translating into much higher rates of chronic absenteeism, especially among elementary school students.
From 2017 to 2020, chronic absenteeism in Baltimore County elementary schools remained relatively unchanged at around 14 percent. But in 2021, it spiked to 22 percent. Last school year, chronic absenteeism in elementary schools spiked again to 30.5 percent.
According to the data, over the last two school years, the number of Baltimore County elementary school students considered chronically absent more than doubled. Project Baltimore asked the school system how it’s addressing the problem, but Superintendent Dr. Darryl Williams would not do an interview with us. Instead, his office sent a short statement about what many consider to be a major problem.
The school system’s statement blamed the COVID pandemic, saying, “The COVID-19 pandemic and related challenges had a significant impact on student absenteeism during the past two school years in BCPS and throughout many school systems in the nation. This was especially true when challenges related to the Omicron variant affected many students during the winter of 2021-2022. With the return to full, in-person instruction, and implementation of strong preventative measures, safety mitigation strategies, immunizations, and specific and strategic support to students and families, BCPS has experienced a substantial decrease in chronic absenteeism this school year. To date, BCPS elementary students in grades K-5 have achieved an attendance rate of 99.7 percent and a chronic absenteeism rate of 1 percent.”
Shellenberger says, to avoid a courtroom filled with truancy cases, his office works closely with the school system’s pupil personnel workers to find parents and get their children to class. He told FOX45 he doesn’t blame COVID for the rise in chronic absenteeism because students returned to in-person learning last school year. He’s not sure what is to blame, but he knows the numbers need to come down.
“It's incredibly important that kids are in school, particularly those elementary school children who are missing so much,” he said. “Because that sets you back literally for the rest of your life.”