COVID absenteeism hit these schools hardest. Here are 5 takeaways about its impact on kids

Danielle DuClos
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Being chronically absent from school contributes to lower student achievement, decreased student mental health, higher dropout rates and more challenges in adulthood, according to the nonpartisan policy research group.

It's no surprise that more students were considered chronically absent, or missing more than 10% of school, during the pandemic. But a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows that the number of chronically absent students increased by almost a quarter between 2017 and 2021.

Before 2021, 12% of K-12 students were habitually absent statewide. That jumped to 16% during COVID-19.

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Being chronically absent from school contributes to lower student achievement, decreased student mental health, higher dropout rates and more challenges in adulthood, according to the nonpartisan policy research group.

Here are five takeaways from the report, showing what districts and student groups were hardest hit:

Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Green Bay and Racine saw a 28% jump in chronic absenteeism in the last four years.

The five largest school districts in Wisconsin usually have the highest absenteeism rates and saw a 28% increase in their collective rate from 2017-2021. But that's actually lower than the increase for all other school districts in the state, which saw a 31% spike over the same time period.

During the pandemic, the five largest districts had a 32% chronic absenteeism rate, and the rest of the state sat at 13%.

Here are the 2021 absenteeism rates for the state's largest districts by enrollment:

  • Milwaukee Public Schools: 36% (71,510 total students)
  • Madison Metropolitan School District: 22% (26,151 total students)
  • Kenosha Unified School District: 20% (19,244 total students)
  • Green Bay Area Public Schools: 38% (19,171 total students)
  • Racine Unified School District: 36% (16,254 total students)

Middle schoolers had the largest rise in absenteeism in 2021.

High schoolers typically have the highest rate of absenteeism, and that continued during the pandemic. While the overall percentage of chronically absent students was highest among the oldest students, the largest increase in absenteeism was among middle schoolers, increasing by 5% over the prior year.

Schools with more students of color and students from low-income housing had the highest rates.

The report found that overall, districts with more students from low-income households had higher absenteeism rates. Schools that had absenteeism rates above 25% during the pandemic had about 70% of their student population coming from low-income households.

Schools with larger student populations of color also had higher rates of absenteeism. The data compiled by the forum found that schools with more than a quarter of their student population chronically absent had on average 62% students of color.

City schools had the highest rates of absenteeism. Suburban schools had the lowest.

About a quarter of city schools had absenteeism rates below 10% during the pandemic. For suburban, town and rural schools, that hovered between 55% and 62%.

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For suburban schools, about two-thirds of them had less than 10% of their student populations chronically absent.

The number of chronically absent students is likely underreported.

Because schooling varied so much around the state during the 2020-21 school year, the standards for a student to be marked present were different across districts. Some schools had fully in-person learning while others had virtual school with practices changing from district to district on what counted as a student being at school.

The variation in marking students present likely means that the number of students who missed school often is higher than what the data shows, according to the report.

Danielle DuClos is a Report for America corps member who covers K-12 education for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact her at Follow on Twitter @danielle_duclos. You can directly support her work with a tax-deductible donation at or by check made out to The GroundTruth Project with subject line Report for America Green Bay Press Gazette Campaign. Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Dr, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.

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