DANVERS, MA — Danvers Public Schools officials are looking to find ways to get students back in the classroom more often as one of the many districts across the state facing elevated levels of chronic absenteeism compared to pre-COVID-19 levels.

While rates in the district are improving year over year, they are still above those from 2019 — mirroring statewide trends that show students are missing school more often than before the coronavirus shutdowns.

Statewide statistics presented at Monday’s School Committee meeting show that statewide about 29.9 percent of high school students, 20 percent of middle school students and 20.3 percent of elementary students were chronically absent — defined as absent more than 10 percent of school days, or 18 days per year — in 2022. That is compared to 23 percent of high school students, 11.3 percent of middle school students and 10 percent of elementary school students in 2019.

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“These numbers are astounding in terms of absenteeism — not only in Danvers but throughout the Commonwealth,” Danvers Superintendent Dan Bauer said. “And not just at the high school but at the middle school and the elementary schools. Logic tells us that the more students are in school and in learning the better off they will be.”

In Danvers, comparisons from this year to last year show marginal improvement.

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In 2022, through the first 42 days of the school year, 5.4 percent of students were “severely absent” — as defined by missing more than 20 percent of school days — while in 2023 it was 4.1 percent. In 2022, 18.3 percent of students were absent between 10 and 19 percent of days, compared to 15.5 percent in 2023.

Missing days early in the school year is a strong indicator of whether a student will be considered chronically absent over the entire academic year.

The question becomes: What to do about it?

School officials said some of the traditional means — which were mostly punitive and included holding students back a year or even bringing court action are rarely effective and therefore not often utilized.

“There are studies that show staying with your cohort increases graduations and if you don’t it decreases a considerable amount,” Bauer said. “If they don’t stay with their cohort (are held back a grade) then the chances of not graduating greatly increase. So it’s important to do what we can to remediate and keep them with their cohort. If they ball behind, it’s really tough.”

Without punishment as a prime motivating factor, officials said early intervention is important to find out why kids are missing school.

One major issue that has been found is a lack of sleep or motivation to attend school because of phones and social media. Because kids are “always available to their friends” the draw to attend school to see them is lessened.

Other factors that are non-health-related include school avoidance and school anxiety.

Officials hope positive reinforcement that creates a “sense of belonging” in school is key to mitigating those issues.

One other challenge facing schools is that the pandemic has changed the way many view illnesses and when it’s appropriate to stay home from school.

Before the pandemic, school attendance was often celebrated. During the hybrid and masked school years, however, students were encouraged not to attend school when showing signs of illness and forced to stay home for up to 10 days if they tested positive for COVID-19.

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But the attendance models, and understanding of the importance of being in school to keep up with learning, have reverted back to pre-COVID-19 standards — meaning that students should still stay home if they are legitimately sick and contagious, but are no longer encouraged to take that day off as a precaution if a family member is sick or if they are simply not feeling up to it that day.

Bauer said the district has applied for grants to help it further deal with the absenteeism issue and potentially implement programs that would allow students who fall behind each year to make up ground through study sessions during vacations and other no-school days.

(Scott Souza is a Patch field editor covering Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody, Salem and Swampscott. He can be reached at Scott.Souza@Patch.com. X/Twitter: @Scott_Souza.)

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