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Sarah Winchell Lenhoff

Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, Jeremy Singer.

How much school students attend is a powerful indicator of their well-being and a strong predictor of their future success in school. Prior research has documented the myriad in-school and out-of-school factors that contribute to high levels of student absenteeism, many emerging from the root causes of poverty and disengagement. The shift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic likely disrupted prior barriers to attendance and may have created new ones. This sequential explanatory mixed-methods study examined student absenteeism during the 2020–2021 school year in Detroit. We used administrative data to show whether and how attendance patterns changed, and we linked family survey and interview data to explain those patterns. We found that 70% of students were chronically absent, with 40% of parents reporting that computer problems contributed to absenteeism. While measures of socioeconomic disadvantage and computer/internet issues were associated with lower attendance and higher probability of chronic absenteeism, reported levels of hardship during the pandemic were not. Despite significant investment in technology, the district’s strategies for engaging students were not sufficient in overcoming economic hardships and the new challenges of online learning.

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