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Virginia public schools battling high rates of absences

Clemens v. Volgelsang

Public schools across the state are struggling to get kids to show up in the classroom consistently. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

The Virginia Department of Education measures "chronic absenteeism" at K-12 schools as the percentage of the student body that misses 10% or more of the school year – which is 17 or 18 days. In Rockingham County, three of the four high schools and one middle school had more than a quarter of their students absent that often last year.

Marcy Williams, the division's supervisor of truancy and school attendance, said part of the issue has been students having to stay home because of a COVID exposure.

Marcy Williams is the supervisor of truancy and school attendance for Rockingham County Public Schools.
Marcy Williams
Marcy Williams is the supervisor of truancy and school attendance for Rockingham County Public Schools.

MARCY WILLIAMS: We were really trying to protect our school-age population from getting sick, and in doing so we were encouraging students to stay home, even with exposures. … Those restrictions have been lifted, so we're encouraging students to come back to school unless they do have a positive test of COVID, and then they need to speak with their school nurse about how to handle that.

She also thinks that the use of online learning during the pandemic meant some students weren't as motivated to return to the classroom.

WILLIAMS: We want to offer hands-on learning, in-class learning, cooperative learning, you know, have students engaged in their learning with their peers.

Across the state, 20% of kids were chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year – almost double that of the last year unmarred by the pandemic. In our broadcast region, 13 of the 14 school districts WMRA reviewed showed an increase in that four-year time period. Nelson and Shenandoah counties and the city of Staunton ended it above 30%.

The state's attendance data for the most recent school year should be available this fall.

Created with data from the Virginia Department of Education

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.