Across Nebraska, a troubling number of school desks have sat empty during the past few years, increasing number of Nebraska students absent from school

Rhonda Mueller greeted her 26th class of students at Elliott Elementary School in the heart of Lincoln around the middle of August. She checked off names on the roster and listened to the students’ joyful back-to-school talk as she greeted her new class of fifth graders as they entered the classroom.

When the bell rang, Mrs. Mueller looked around the classroom to see her children seated in a circle in the center of the room, eager to begin the new school year.

There were 21 seats available. One sat empty. Mueller recorded her very first unexcused absence of the academic year on the very first day of school.

“How do you go back?” Mueller stated. “During those times, we participated in some very important community building activities. Because he is unable to proceed without that, the rest of the class was required to take a step back and provide instruction to the missing student. … It brings all of us, including the students, back in time.

According to specialists, teachers, and school administrators who are currently working to find a solution to the problem, an alarming number of school desks have been left unoccupied across the state of Nebraska during the past several years.

According to the most recent data available for the entire state, the rate of chronic absenteeism in Nebraska’s public schools shot over the roof during COVID-19.

Chronic absences caused many kids in Nebraska to fall behind academically and socially during the 2020-2021 school year. During that school year, nearly one in five pupils in the state of Nebraska missed at least 10% of the school days.

Missing School ChartFlatwater Free Press

Students have fallen ill as a result of the pandemic. It has made existing mental health problems much worse. It has also made life more difficult for many students who were already living below the poverty line, which is one of the factors that led to an increased likelihood of students skipping school.

Now, educators like Mueller are attempting to bridge the widening gap that exists between pupils who attend class consistently and those who do so only sometimes. And educators and community leaders around the state of Nebraska are looking for methods to restore ties with students who have been away from school while also attempting to assist other families in getting their children back into the classroom.

“There’s not a whole lot you can do with them,” said David Jespersen, a spokesperson for the Nebraska Department of Education. “No matter how wonderful your instructor is, no matter how good the system is,” he said, “if you can’t get the student in the seat, there’s not a whole lot you can do with them.”

Every day, teachers like Mueller take note of the absences in their classrooms, and the observations of these teachers are supported by data from the Nebraska Department of Education.

According to data provided by the state, Nebraska students skipped an average of 6.6% of school days for the academic year that ended in May 2021. This is an increase from 5.1% in the year 2015.

And during that same period of time, the rate of chronic absenteeism in the state of Nebraska increased by about 60 percent.

Schools in the country, in the suburbs, and in the cities across the state were all impacted by these student absences.

During the 2020-2021 school year, nearly 38% of children enrolled in Omaha Public Schools for at least 10 days were considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 10% of school days. More than one in three children attending Ogallala Public Schools have a history of chronic absenteeism. In addition, approximately one quarter of students attending Ralston Public Schools were chronic absentees from class.

Pupils of color and students who come from homes with low incomes appear to fare particularly poorly in light of these developments.

For instance, during the 2020-2021 school year, chronic absenteeism among students who qualified for free and reduced lunch at Ogallala High School was 48%, which is approximately double the percentage of chronic absenteeism among students who did not get free and reduced lunch.

In addition, during that school year, more than half of the Native American kids in Nebraska, as well as forty percent of all Black students and twenty-nine percent of all Hispanic students in the state, had a chronic absence rate.

Officials at schools across the state of Nebraska argue that the crushing impacts of poverty are a major factor in the high rate of student absence.

According to Joseph Lefdal, the principle of Schuyler Central High School, an estimated forty kids in his school are employed in jobs that need them to work nighttime shifts in order to bring in money for their families. A significant number of students at Schuyler are required to either accompany family members to appointments in order to translate for them or skip numerous days of class in order to see family members who live in foreign countries.

According to the superintendent of Nebraska City Public Schools, Mark Fritch, the inability to find inexpensive child care in the local area is another factor that can prevent pupils from attending school who have younger siblings.

As president of the Lincoln Education Association and a school counselor for many years, Deb Rasmussen detailed how she met the needs of her students by stocking her office with necessities such as food, clothing, toothpaste, and a straightening iron.

According to Nicole Seymour, director of Greater Omaha Attendance and Learning Services, which offers resources and counseling to chronically absent students, it is difficult for a student to go to class, and it is even more difficult for that student to learn, when the student is concerned about things such as having access to food, clothing, and stable housing.

“They are worried about what they are going to eat for dinner tonight, and they are wondering if I will be able to find that for my children.” Seymour stated.

Since the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, school officials have reported that feelings of worry, depression, and isolation have been more prevalent among kids of all different financial levels.

However, students who originate from homes with poor incomes are less likely to receive assistance for these issues, and as a result, they are more likely to miss school.

“The continued divide in those disparities of families that were already struggling, they just intensified,” said Anne Hobbs, director of the Juvenile Justice Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in Omaha. “The continued divide in those disparities of families that were already struggling, they just intensified.”

Students suffer consequences from absenteeism that go beyond their participation grades. The concepts that students learn frequently build upon one another. Without regular school attendance, it is difficult to recapture the concepts learned over the course of numerous days.

“We can’t relive what a teacher does for the kid every day in the classroom,” said Lisa Schroeder, administrator at Meadows Elementary School in Ralston. “We can’t relive what a teacher does for the kid every day in the classroom.” “We had chickens in kindergarten. We are unable to restart the procedure by placing the baby back in its egg and doing so would be futile. Your child will be excluded from significant experiences, connections, and occurrences.”

The students’ current and future academic performance suffers as a direct result of their lack of background information.

According to what Lefdal remarked, “We have 174 days to properly accomplish the work.” “Kids are missing 10, 15, or even 20 days at the very least… It’s possible that they got a passing grade, but the real problem is that they haven’t lived up to the requirements.

When students miss class on a consistent basis, not only do they lag academically behind their peers, but they also fall behind their peers socially, which can sometimes create or intensify feelings of worry or isolation.

A persistent lack of attendance can also have an effect on the entire classroom. Teachers are required to find a balance between students who have a firm grasp on the most recent subject and students who are falling farther and further behind; as a result, they often have to forego general instruction or planning time in order to reteach pupils on an individual basis. Rasmussen detailed his experiences as a school counselor, which were very similar.

Rasmussen remarked that “it has the potential to consume my entire day.” “[Counselors] would want to get out of the classroom and offer lessons on a variety of topics. The majority of the time, we expend all of our energy in an effort to locate missing children and their families.

Now, many schools are putting forth extra effort to reverse the impacts of several years of soaring absenteeism, which has plagued the nation.

In the past few years, the rate of chronic student absenteeism in Schuyler Public Schools has decreased, making it one of the few school districts in the state to have accomplished this feat.

Because of this, the school system has implemented something called a “recovery model,” which stipulates that kids who are tardy or missing must make up the time they missed either after school or on the weekends.

According to the authorities of the school, this program not only allows students more leeway in their schedules but also assists students in maintaining their academic momentum. Additionally, the district releases children from school at 1:30 pm on Fridays, allowing pupils the opportunity to catch up on missed work at the tail end of the week. Students who are pregnant, students who are battling drug addiction, and students who work overnight shifts are some of the groups who have participated in the program.

According to Lefdal, the principle of Schuyler High School, “Schools want to put in place all of these policies and procedures that injure students, that don’t do the right things for them.” “But if we just spend a little time up front and actually do the job with the kid when they’re not in trouble, then you’re creating relationships with them,” you say.

Other Nebraska schools are concentrating on reestablishing their school communities in the hopes of increasing student enrollment.

This school year, Southern School District 1, which is based in Gage County, will begin offering eSports to its students.

According to Superintendent Chris Prososki, the objective is to engage children who do not take part in extracurricular activities such as athletics or the arts in an effort to pique their interest in attending school.

Campaigns on social media aimed specifically at parents have been developed and used by Ogallala Public Schools.

Students at Ralston Public Schools are encouraged to develop a collection of staff trading cards featuring their teachers’ images and interesting facts about them.

Ralston also established in each school what are known as Principal Advisory Committees, which give groups of students the opportunity to provide guidance to their respective building principals on a variety of issues. The topic of attendance was the primary emphasis of Schroeder’s committee at Meadows Elementary.

When asked about an incentive to immediately attend class, her students’ one-word response was candy whenever the question was posed.

When the first bell rings in the morning at Ralston, teachers now bring Sour Patch Kids and lollipops to the pupils already seated in the classroom.

Additionally, school districts all around the state are making advantage of money provided by the federal government and the state government in order to fight some of the underlying reasons of absenteeism.

The kids of Nebraska City Public Schools were able to benefit from community-based professional counseling thanks to a federal grant that was awarded to three school districts in the state of Nebraska. Nebraska City Public Schools was one of those districts.

Because Gage County was awarded a grant, stakeholders from all around the county are required to convene four times a year in order to discuss and devise solutions to problems confronting children of school age.

Christina Lyons, the director of the Gage County Multiple Agencies Partnering for Success Coalition, noted that “it is challenging sometimes in the rural area, since we don’t have as many services as a Lincoln or Omaha (had).” What we lack in material wealth, we make up for in the quality of our personal connections. I have the impression that everyone at that school who is working with this child or this family wants to see them succeed and wants to see them perform to the best of their abilities.

When Mueller is back at Elliott Elementary School in Lincoln, she gathers her kids around her and sits in a circle. This is one of several “restorative techniques” that she employs in her classroom.

Six years ago, Mueller’s school district provided her with training in restorative practices, which is a proactive attitude that purposefully develops community and stresses connections. Restorative practices are a proactive mindset that intentionally builds community.

Students in her class sit in a circle around the teacher and use something called a “talking item” to communicate with one another. During the first week of class, Mueller has her pupils collaborate with her to develop a “social contract.” This document explains the manner in which the pupils expect to be treated by other youngsters and adults in the school. According to her, the implementation of these measures has resulted in reduced chaos during instructional periods and fewer instances of students acting inappropriately.

“They want to be good,” remarked Mueller in reference to children. They have the intention of acting in a moral manner. They hope to become a contributing member of a thriving community. And because of this, they are going to make decisions that will allow them to be a part of that community.

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