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    Tuesday, June 18, 2024

    In New London and the nation’s schools, chronic absenteeism lingers post pandemic

    New London High School junior Lucas Cruz, 17, shown at Juan’s Barbershop in New London on Tuesday, June 4, 2024, was an honor student prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but missed 50 days of the 2022-23 school year. Now, he hopes to improve his attendance next year and get back on track. (Terell Wright/Special to The Day)
    Lucas Cruz, 17, right, a New London High School junior, jokes with his brother, Matthew Cruz, a barber at Juan’s Barbershop in New London, Tuesday, June 4, 2024. Lucas Cruz, an honors student prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, missed 50 days of school in the 2022-2023 school year, but is hoping to turn things around next year. (Terell Wright/Special to The Day)
    Chronic student absenteeism, by month, at New London High School from September, 2019, through April.

    New London — With aspirations of becoming a psychologist, Lucas Cruz, 17, spent his entire life dreaming big.

    However, the New London High School sophomore began falling behind when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Upon the return to in-person learning, Cruz struggled to keep up with the workload.

    “I got into the routine of not going to school every day,” said Cruz.

    This inconsistent schedule, alongside personal struggles exacerbated by the pandemic, caused Cruz to fall behind.

    In the 2022-23 academic year, he missed 50 days of school, more than a quarter of the entire year, and more than double the 18-day state threshold for a chronically absent student.

    With absences piling, he stopped taking honors courses and grew further apart from learning.

    Beginning in March 2020, the pandemic played an insurmountable role in hampering many of New London’s youth. Despite schools being fully reopened for almost two years, chronic absenteeism has not returned to its pre-pandemic levels here. In the past two school years, the number of chronically absent students peaked at 51% in December 2023, the highest rate recorded at the high school since the pandemic began.

    It’s a trend developing throughout the nation. A mixture of factors including the pandemic, mental health and instability at home are driving students away from the classroom. The increase in absences has left many students academically, socially and mentally behind.

    According to data from the state Department of Education, almost a third, 32.9%, of New London School District students were chronically absent in the 2022-2023 school year compared to 27.5% in the 2018-19 academic year.

    Chronic absenteeism rates have increased throughout the region. Neighboring Groton Public Schools saw 21.8% of students chronically absent in 2022-2023 compared to 12.2% prior to the pandemic.

    Norwich Public Schools had an 10.08% absentee rate in 2018-2019, according to Acting Superintendant Susan Lessard. She said in 2022-23, the absentee rate was 27.81%.

    At Norwich Free Academy, the high school attended by students from several towns, chronic absenteeism rates soared to 29.9% last school year, up from 17.4% in the 2018-19 school year, according the Department of Education data.

    Statewide, 20% of students were chronically absent in the 2022-23 school year, missing 10% of the year. Nationally, 22.2% of students were chronically absent, according to FutureEd, an education analysis think tank.

    Schools officials throughout the region, initially alarmed by how many students were missing school, have mobilized to address absences.

    State resources dedicated to boosting student attendance have been pivotal in decreasing student absences this year, according to Nathan Quesnel, superintendent of Norwich Free Academy.

    New London, a historically low-income school district, is more vulnerable to chronic absenteeism. Even before the pandemic, it was common for students to miss class.

    The reasons vary.

    With 357 homeless students in the district this year, kids sometimes don’t know where they’ll sleep at night. Others have to prioritize working a job to support their families over education. These trends stuck during the pandemic and only strengthened.

    New London, Norwich and Groton schools were ranked among the Connecticut districts with the largest number of homeless students, according to data from the state.

    New London, with 498 homeless students, was the third-highest on the 2022-23 list, just below New Haven (719) and Waterbury (652). New Haven’s population, though, is approximately 135,000 compared to New London’s nearly 28,000, according to the latest U.S. census data.

    “There's just a lot of barriers in the community and with the economy,” said Melissa Parker, an attendance motivator at New London High School. “We end up with kids who are staying home because they have to watch younger siblings. We also have kids that are working, and they're really tired. So then they come to school really late.”

    Some students, like Cruz, miss school due to struggles with mental health. According to a 2022 study from the National Institutes of Health, 36.9% of high school students experienced poor mental health. The impacts of prolonged isolation paired with domestic struggles students face have resulted in greater insecurity and hopelessness.

    “I couldn't take the pressure,” Cruz said.

    Rachel Newer, a social worker for New London Public Schools, recalled one high school student feeling insecure about the smell of his clothes. He felt like the clothing he came to school in was dirty, Newer said.

    Newer started washing his clothes and his attendance improved.

    “There was a lot of mental illness in the family. And so sometimes what we see with parents is they sort of share their issues with their children. He felt like he needed to be home with Mom. He didn't feel comfortable in the big classes. He just wanted to be at home,” Newer said.

    Despite the student experiencing other problems, that small gesture was a step in the right direction for him.

    The school is making efforts to address mental health and wellness both inside and beyond the classroom. The state-wide Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, or LEAP, establishes relationships directly with families at risk of chronic absenteeism by conducting at-home visits and consultations.

    A 2023 report from the Connecticut Department of Education found that “attendance rates increased by 4 percentage points in the month immediately following the first LEAP visit.” Attendance continued to rise in the following months by an average of 7 percentage points.

    Additionally, the high school has begun to emphasize mentorship for students. Having someone in the school building encouraging them has proved successful.

    Cruz always struggled with math. But his geometry teacher, Towoudjeba Dolou, has instilled a sense of care and understanding into Cruz.

    The results have been significant. Cruz has shown improvement with his attendance, missing only 20 days this year and almost none since the Spring semester began. Most of his absences were due to medical reasons.

    “I hate geometry, but I will never skip that guy's class,” Cruz said of Dolou. “He's a really good teacher. … He goes above and beyond expectations that are given to him.”

    Cruz hopes to improve his attendance next year and prioritize his mental health. Growing up in a house with six brothers and his parents, and not prone to discussing his emotions, Cruz says that opening up to his friends about their fears, struggles and goals has allowed him to grow. By talking with friends and getting closer to God, Cruz is hopeful he’ll stay on the right track.

    “Relationships really matter. One of the things that we want to focus on next year is using more of our adults as mentors for students. To give them someone to connect with, someone they know who's looking out for them, someone who's encouraging them,” Newer said.

    New London High School is making inroads with students. Chronic absenteeism rates have begun to fall. The district has introduced evening classes, providing greater flexibility for students with jobs, home responsibilities or irregular schedules. They’ve also bolstered career training programs that prepare students for the workforce.

    However, there have been some major setbacks. Funding from the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law providing funds to homeless children, has dried up, said Carrie Rivera the district's executive director of school and student support services in April.

    Pandemic relief funds that fueled social welfare programs throughout the nation have begun to run out. The dearth leaves housing-insecure students throughout the district at greater risk of missing school.

    “We can't supply hotel rooms. I don't have funding for resources, food or clothing anymore,” Rivera said.

    Despite these barriers, the district plans to continue outreach to students in whatever ways possible. This summer, school officials hope to visit every rising freshman’s home to introduce them to resources and support the school can provide.

    “I'm hoping that more students want to be here. And that when they walk in that door, it's an inviting, happy and safe environment for them to come into and want to be in,” Parker said.

    t.wright@theday.com

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