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Behavioral issues, absenteeism at schools increase, federal data shows

A student rests on his desk at a middle school in California City, Calif., in March 2022. Since the pandemic started, experts have warned of a mental health crisis facing American children that is now visibly playing out at schools across the country. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)
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More than 80 percent of public schools reported that the pandemic has taken a toll on student behavior and social-emotional development, while nearly as many schools say they need more mental health support, according to federal data released Wednesday.

The data, collected as the 2021-2022 school year was winding down, also showed that more than 70 percent of schools saw increases in chronic student absenteeism since the onset of the pandemic and about half of schools reported increased acts of disrespect toward teachers and staff.

“The survey paints a remarkably coherent picture,” said Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and director of the National Education Policy Center. “The general trend is still showing pandemic-related harm to students and their teachers.”

The findings by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), based on responses from of leaders at 846 public schools, underline problems that have become increasingly well known during more than two years of pandemic-altered education.

But the magnitude of problems related to behavior and well-being is troubling, said Constance A. Lindsay, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Schools could be scrambling in the fall, she said, expecting that “our most disadvantaged students have been hit the hardest.”

Compared with a typical year before the pandemic, 56 percent of schools reported a rise in classroom disruptions because of student misconduct in 2021-2022. Nearly half of schools pointed to increases in out-of-classroom rowdiness, with 46 percent of schools reporting more fighting and threats of physical attacks between students, according to the NCES data.

“I think that comes from a mixture of different traumas and emotions,” said Ronnie Harvey Jr., principal at Washington-Marion High School in Lake Charles, La., who recalls teacher and student absences, learning gaps, burnout and economic setbacks. His community also got hit hard by two hurricanes in 2020. As a school leader, he said, “it’s a balancing act of holding people accountable but also being caring and compassionate at the same time. The pandemic was something we hadn’t experienced before. It was something we couldn’t Google.”

The new numbers follow a federal report issued last week showing that schools reported an increase in verbal abuse and teacher disrespect during the decade that ended in spring 2020. That report also examined the surge in school shootings.

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Teachers union leaders have said findings about student behavior reflect a rise both in reporting and in problems. Schools continue to lack sufficient staffing, training and student supports, Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said in a recent interview.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, predicted increases for the pandemic period, which she linked to the country’s culture wars and angry politics, intensified by social media. The toxic discourse filters into the classroom, she said, emphasizing the need for more guidance counselors, social workers and wraparound services.

Schools were clear about the need: Nearly 80 percent would like more mental health support for students or staff, while 70 percent of schools said more training is required to support students’ social-emotional development.

“What that tells you is the sort of depth and breadth of the need,” said Scott Gest, an education professor at the University of Virginia. “Part of what was striking to me in looking at the results is that these basic concerns and covid impacts are largely seen across all levels of schooling, across all regions, across different kinds of school demographics.”

Chronic absenteeism was explored in detail, with nearly 40 percent of schools saying it had increased even since the 2020-2021 pandemic-altered school year. Schools in cities — or with higher levels of students in poverty or students of color — reported greater percentages of chronic absenteeism in 2021-2022.

Anu Ebbe, principal at Cherokee Heights Middle School in Madison, Wis., said that absenteeism traces back to multiple issues, including students tending to younger siblings when day care was canceled because of covid exposures. Another factor is mental health. “So many students experienced issues with their well-being,” she said. “There was so much depression and anxiety, unlike anything I’ve have seen before.”

High performing Md. school system faces chronic absenteeism

State data shows chronic absenteeism has at least doubled since pre-pandemic levels, said Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works. Data from 2020-2021 underestimates the size of the problem during distance learning because of loose definitions of what it meant to be present for school.

“The key to getting back to school is using data to notice which kids have struggled and to build relationships, so we can have supports in place that address not only attendance barriers but also academic gaps and social-emotional challenges experienced during the pandemic,” Chang said.

Teacher absences stood out, too. Nearly half of schools said teacher absences climbed from a year earlier. Adding to the strain is a shortage of substitute teachers. More than three-quarters of schools said it was harder to get a substitute in 2021-2022 than it was before the pandemic hit.

When substitutes can’t be found, most schools said, classes are covered by administrators, nonteaching staff or other teachers using their planning periods. Only 1 percent of schools reported always being able to find substitute teachers.

The data was released by the NCES, the statistical arm of the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The data set was described by NCES as “experimental,” in that it uses new sources or methodologies, but reliable.