Editorial: Where have CT's students gone?

An empty classroom in Bridgeport, Conn.

An empty classroom in Bridgeport, Conn.

Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media

Maintaining a healthy classroom is really no different than trying to avoid catching a cold.

Both require steady habits, and a focus on the individual.

Connecticut was concerned about shifting the course of student absenteeism long before COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.

Back in 2017, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration saw dividends from efforts to reduce chronic absenteeism in Connecticut’s classrooms (which is defined as students who miss classes 10 percent of the time). The likes of public service campaigns helped knock that figure below 10 percent for the first time since 2012.

Before the pandemic reset all data streams, absenteeism had already snuck back to 12.2 percent in the state. Almost three years later, Connecticut school officials say the current figures have since doubled to 25 percent.

In real numbers, that means about 125,000 children in Connecticut are not showing up regularly for school.

Where have the children gone?

The answers — there are far more than one — touch on the core social challenges Connecticut is grappling with. These families, classified as having “high needs,” cope with the likes of  homelessness, financial instability, language barriers, health care, bullying, etc. 

On top of that, there are the realities that teachers as well as students are dealing with pandemic burnout and related illnesses.

Connecticut officials have not ignored the issue. Federal COVID dollars were pumped into the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, which works with 15 school districts to mine down to the personal nature of the reasons students are not in the classroom.

The best way to draw them back is to try to address the obstacles, which has been the goal of meeting with caretakers and students on their home turf. Such meetings can reveal hurdles such as day care and jobs held by students to help pay the bills.

There can be more general dividends, such as identifying trends that can lead to a shift in services.

There are some encouraging signs for the students classified as being in the “high needs” category. Since school opened in late summer, the numbers are skewing in a better direction for these students.

Of course, that means the numbers are rising for students who don’t have such identified challenges.

If getting sick could ever be classified as good news, that may be the case in interpreting this data. School officials report that the recent menu of diseases such as COVID,  respiratory syncytial virus, the traditional flu and the ever-reliable common cold have spiked the numbers.

Finding the right answers will not be easy, but at least the Learner Engagement and Attendance Program gives educators a better sense of where they are being tested. Connecticut needs to ensure the personal approach doesn’t end when the federal funds run out. If that’s not enough of a challenge, officials must nurture classroom teachers who carried an even heavier workload than usual in recent years.

Every student faces different challenges. Continuing to focus on the individual can prevent this cold from becoming a flu.