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  • Writer's pictureHallie Vipperman

Chronic absenteeism plaguing South Carolina schools

Updated: Apr 25

Exploring the impact of chronic absenteeism in South Carolina schools

by Hallie Vipperman

Going to school looks different today for many kids.

In fact, just going to school at all is a challenge for many of them. 

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic forced kids to stay home and schools to go online, attending school has felt more optional and negotiable for many children.

They are no longer showing up at 7:30 a.m. on the dot, and classrooms have more empty chairs every day. 

“I think the pandemic caused some people to fear sending their kids to school, but I also think COVID-19 got people out of their routines of getting up and getting their kids to school,” says Jennifer Mauldin, a South Carolina elementary school teacher. 

Struggling to just show up

These absences in schools across the country have not gone unnoticed. 

The White House reported that the number of public school students who are chronically absent, defined as missing at least 10% of official school days, excused or unexcused, has nearly doubled from about 15% in the 2018-2019 school year to around 30% in 2021.

The pandemic altered education for more than two years as schooling was done online with Zoom™ and other online portals to keep learning alive while teachers and students were stuck at home

Changing the process of learning and ultimately altering the students’ mindsets about schoolwork and attendance has continued to be a problem for schools.  

Unlike during the pandemic, a blank document and the click of a submission button will no longer suffice for the passable grade a student may have once received. 

“It has gotten increasingly harder with absenteeism," says Chas Coker, principal of Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, one of the largest high schools in the Charleston County School District. "I think before COVID, 17% of students were chronically absent at Wando, and two years ago we hovered around 28% chronically absent."

Coker added that many students went on “homebound” after the pandemic, impacting the chronic absenteeism further.

“A lot of different anxieties and depressions have popped up from that, and it has grown less over the years but for a couple of years there were kids that had gotten so used to being isolated they had trouble going back into the school setting,” he said. 

Hedy Chang, executive director of the national nonprofit Attendance Works, calls the situation “dire.”

“This is a dire and urgent situation because if we want our kids to learn and to recover from a very traumatic multiple years of disrupted learning, we have to reestablish a routine of attendance,” said Chang. 

A student's perspective

Absenteeism can have both direct and indirect effects on a student's academic performance and social relationships.

Students who are frequently absent may find it difficult to keep up with the curriculum, leading to lower grades. They may also feel disconnected from their peers and the school community, as they miss out on opportunities to engage in classroom discussions and group activities.

However, it is important to remember that absenteeism is often a symptom of underlying issues, such as illness, family responsibilities, or disengagement from school.

High school student Lila Sauer has missed a lot of school this year.

"When I miss school, it's hard to catch up. I feel like I'm always behind, and it's stressful to make up for the lost time," she said. "I also feel out of place when I return because I've missed out on classroom talks and group activities."

Sauer says she is sometimes absent due to illness and sometimes because of having responsibilities she considers more important than being at school that day.

"It's not that I don't want to go to school," she says. "Sometimes, life gets in the way. I think schools need to understand this and offer flexible learning options."

Sauer's perspective highlights the challenges for administrators - reminding kids that it is important to be in school but also needing to address this issue empathetically.

Absenteeism affects CCSD 

South Carolina is one of many states facing this problem, and the Charleston County School District is feeling the pain too. 

Currently, 3,817 CCSD students are considered chronically absent. 

CCSD conducted a training workshop for educators before the 2023-2024 school year, hoping additional training and attention to this issue would help to keep students in the classroom.  

The district’s newly named superintendent Anita Huggins also just released a plan at the beginning of March for getting students back in the classroom.

While schools and districts are acknowledging their problems with attendance and keeping students in classrooms, parents also play a very important role – getting their children to school and instilling major consequences if they refuse to go. 

Keeping attendance is complicated, and there are so many components that go into tracking it and keeping up with who is present, especially in larger schools.

Coker pointed out the difficulty of keeping up with so many students. Wando High School has 2,600 students, one of the biggest in the state, and keeping track of every student, every period of the day has too many opportunities for misses.

“2,600 students go to eight different classes a day," Coker says. "It’s hard. You are relying on 235 teachers to take correct attendance, so a lot of things have to fall into place to hit everything on the right note. And when you are dealing with people, things get messy."

Mauldin also thinks the added administrative efforts to keep tabs on kids has created the opposite problem - kids who should stay home, don't.

"More is being done to try to prevent the absenteeism, but so much so that now parents often don’t even keep their children home when they really are sick because they don’t want to get the phone calls and the letters and all of the things asking why the child wasn't at school,” she says.

Following attendance protocols

There are specific protocols that a parent must follow to keep a child at home for the day.


“For student’s absences to be excused, parents have to write a note, explaining why the child is absent,” Mauldin said, adding that a child who is absent for 10 consecutive days will be automatically withdrawn from school, which would mean going through the registration process again.

The majority of the consequences for an unexcused absence fall on the child’s parent or guardian. 

“Parents being held responsible for not sending their children to school is considered educational neglect and that’s a crime,” Mauldin says. “It’s a form of child abuse.” 

Mauldin added that chronic absenteeism can result in an “educational neglect” charge against parents. 

“Even if it’s not consecutive days, the parents are held liable because that’s a form of abuse because they’re neglecting their responsibility of getting their children to school,” says Mauldin. 

And it’s not just about counting the bodies in school. 

Major concern even beyond high school

Mauldin believes a big part of problem stems from the parents, rather than the schools.

“I think children are absent more because there's a lack of responsibility on the parent’s part for getting their children to school,” says Mauldin, who believes parents are putting too many things on kids, making it difficult to keep up in school and therefore not want to go. “I think it’s getting worse every year."

And it's like a domino effect. One day's absence equals extra work in multiple subjects when the student returns. Inevitably the student cannot complete it all in time and just falls further behind - making the desire to go to school even less.

The  White House report also noted a chronically absent student will not only have poor grades and low test scores but often experience adverse outcomes later in life:

Beyond test scores, irregular attendance can be a predictor of high school drop-outs, which has been linked to poor labor market prospects, diminished health, and increased involvement in the criminal justice system,”  the report said.

Coker has definitely found this to be true at Wando.

“Grades directly correlate with the amount of absences a student has,” he said. “So the more you're absent, the lower your grade is. It's pretty clear on paper if you are not here, you can't get the material, you can’t turn stuff in.” 


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