SOUTH HADLEY — Since the coronavirus pandemic, schools across Massachusetts and the country have seen an increase in chronic absenteeism with students.

Chronic absenteeism is when a student has missed at least 18 days of school.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has launched a campaign to help improve school attendance statewide with public service announcements, billboards, transit ads, email and social media messages.

The “Chronic Absenteeism Recovery” initiative is to help provide resources for those with chronic absenteeism and support for families.

The South Hadley School Committee discussed the absenteeism rates that were presented in the DESE report during its Feb. 1 meeting.

South Hadley High School absenteeism rate amongst its students was 36.3%, Michael E. Smith Middle School was 27.9%, Plains Elementary was 22.3% and Mosier Elementary School was 9.9%.

South Hadley High School Principal Elizabeth Wood was present at the meeting to discuss the DESE report and how her team is working to decrease that number.
She said that the high school has an attendance committee who was working on addressing these absenteeism rates before the DESE report came out.

Wood looked at the history of South Hadley High School absenteeism rate over the years.

In the 2016-2017 school year the absenteeism rate was 14.5% and stayed right around that number until the 2021-2022 school year.

The 2019-2020 school year saw a decrease in the absenteeism rate amongst its students, but Wood explained that had to do with the fact that students were taking classes remotely in March, April, May and June.

In the 2022-2023 school year, South Hadley High School absenteeism rate reached 44%.

“When the state releases our numbers this year and we are at 36.3% for the 2023-2024 school year that number is alarming to me but then I think, OK, it is alarming, but it is a little bit better than it was in the previous year,” Wood said.

Wood also discussed that there are many reasons that a student may be missing school including medical excuses, an increased want to spend time with family and also financial excuses.

She added, “We have to not only consider the medical instances of needing to be out but also the mental health aspects of needing to be out. Also, I think during the pandemic there was an emphasis put on students needing to also be financial contributors to their households and that really changed over the last few years as well.”

This is not just an issue in South Hadley, the state itself saw a 72% increase in absenteeism or chronic absenteeism.

Wood added, “That is why this initiative has come out in full force. There are a lot of different PSAs that have come out from the state, and it is a really big mission to make the communities aware of what that impact can have on academic learning.”

Although the absenteeism rate has risen in South Hadley High School, Wood said she is also not too worried because the dropout rate has decreased, and the graduation rate has increased.

The graduation rate went from 87.4% to 89.9%.

Wood discussed that this is something that herself and her team will continue to work on and address the needs of its students.

She said, “I think it is something we need to continue to monitor and implement strategies on student feedback, based on caregiver feedback and based on community feedback. We’ve got students with different needs right now and that is the story of what schools are going through and we have to catch up to what those needs are.

Superintendent Mark McLaughlin added that these problems will be looked at and addressed public school in South Hadley.

He said, “Always as educators we have to keep our eyes on the changing needs of our students. We have to adapt, and we have to grow and acknowledge and understand the changing nature of out students and what they need. Those are things that you will hear in the days and weeks to come.”

tgarnet@thereminder.com | + posts