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‘COVID crushed us’: Chronic absenteeism plagued N.J. schools during pandemic

According to the annual New Jersey School Performance Report, the number of students in the Camden City School Distrct who missed 10 or more school days jumped to 57% during the 2020-21 school year.

File: An empty hallways at Morgan Village Middle School in Camden, NJ on Monday, January 17, 2022. Morgan Village Middle School is a 6th-8th grade school in the Fairview section of Camden.
File: An empty hallways at Morgan Village Middle School in Camden, NJ on Monday, January 17, 2022. Morgan Village Middle School is a 6th-8th grade school in the Fairview section of Camden.Read moreMIGUEL MARTINEZ / For the Inquirer

As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the 2020-21 school year, thousands of Camden students were chronically absent, either not showing up at buildings or failing to log in for remote learning, a state report shows.

The number of students in the Camden City School District who missed 10 or more school days — the definition of chronically absent — jumped to 57% that year, up from 34% during the 2018-19 school year, the last full year held in person, according to the annual New Jersey School Performance Reports.

It was a year unlike any other when the coronavirus forced schools to shut down for months. Camden was among the last districts in the region to fully reopen; elsewhere, schools slowly reopened buildings with in-person learning, although many students stayed remote.

» READ MORE: Thousands of kindergartners didn’t show up for school last year. Here’s what that means for the school year to come.

In an annual report that usually assesses student performance in math, science, and language arts — tests that were canceled in both spring 2020 and 2021 — the impact of the pandemic was most visible when it came to attendance: Chronic absenteeism increased 30% among New Jersey’s 1.4 million public school students, the report found. Graduation rates also fell slightly statewide, while some economically disadvantaged districts like Camden and Burlington City had a much larger decline. (Figures were not reported for the 2019-20 school year because of COVID-19.)

Camden, which enrolled almost 6,200 students that year, ranked second-highest for chronic absenteeism among South Jersey districts with at least 500 students. (Camden Prep, a charter that enrolls about 1,000, had the worst record.) Absenteeism was highest among preschoolers, kindergartners, and freshmen, said Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs.

“It was a long 18 months for our high school students being in a remote environment,” McCombs said Monday. “Despite the hard work, we just had a difficult time keeping our students engaged.”

The findings of the report are troubling but not surprising, school officials say, given that some schools had virtual instruction for part of the year. In some districts, students went months without devices to get access to their classrooms.

» READ MORE: Absenteeism was up and graduation rates fell last year, according to N.J.’s annual school report card

Among the districts with the highest absenteeism rates were poor-performing and economically disadvantaged districts including Camden, Willingboro, Paulsboro, Lindenwold, and Clementon. Several charter schools, including Camden Prep, KIPP Norcross Academy, and Mastery Schools, saw fewer students coming to school as well.

Absenteeism at KIPP, where enrollment is about 1,700, more than doubled to 45% in 2020-21, compared with 23% for the 2018-19 school year, the report said.

There were many reasons why students may not have attended virtual classes, said Jessica Shearer, a KIPP spokesperson. Some may not have had a quiet place at home to log on, or they were responsible for supervising younger siblings, she said.

“Our students and their families were hit particularly hard by the pandemic,” she said in a statement. “Attendance could not be the priority it may have been in previous years as families struggled to overcome the chaos of the pandemic.”

Said one Burlington City school official: “COVID crushed us.”

When the 2020-2021 school began year, many public schools opened with hybrid learning models and students attended traditional and online classes. Teachers said the biggest challenge was getting students to log in virtually. (New Jersey leaves it to individual districts to come up with attendance policies, but schools are required to open for 180 days.)

Before the pandemic, average daily attendance in Camden, a state-run school system, was about 92% in its traditional public schools, McCombs said. That first year of COVID, officials sent letters, called parents, made home visits, and provided internet help to get more students to show up, she said.

McCombs said the year was especially difficult for Camden’s 1,400 high school students, who spent the entire 2020-21 school year in remote learning. The district decided to keep those five schools closed after health and safety concerns and after only about 25% of students said they would return to the classroom. McCombs said some had to work to help support their families after their parents lost their jobs.

”There’s no substitute for a teacher being in front of students,” she said.

» READ MORE: Students aren’t showing up for virtual learning. ‘Are they well cared for? Are they safe?’

Camden’s four-year graduation rate in 2020-21 also dropped 11.4 percentage points to 58.5%, the lowest in the region. The state average is 91%, a slight decline from the previous year.

Elsewhere in the region, graduation rates at Mastery Charter, Burlington City, Riverside, Paulsboro, Lindenwold, Pennsauken, and Pine Hill were among the districts with graduation rates below the state average.

McCombs said it was “very sobering to see all of the different ups and downs” in Camden schools. The state took over the district in 2013 after years of poor student performance.

The superintendent said graduation rates increased from 49% just prior to the state intervention to about 70% for the 2019-20 school year before the pandemic upended education.

McCombs said the district has put co-teachers in elementary classes, hired more counselors, and added more resources to help students cope with the social and emotional impact from COVID-19. The district also plans to offer summer school this year to help students make up for learning loss.

”It’s heartbreaking when you see all of the hard work that educators and students are doing,” McCombs said. “We’re going to keep pushing and pushing until we see that gap close.”