What will make children go to school? The answer to that question used to be obvious. First, their parents. And then, if not, the law. But over the past few years, particularly since the pandemic and resulting lockdowns, some kids got out of the habit of going to school. And they are still not back. 

Take Maine, for instance, where chronic absenteeism (defined by missing more than 10% of school days) has become a serious problem. According to a recent article in the Portland Press Herald, “Before the pandemic, 16.8% of Maine’s K12 students met this definition. During the pandemic by the 2021-22 school year, that number almost doubled to 31.5%. Last year, it dropped slightly to 27.3%.”

Those numbers are reflective of the national ones. As my colleague Nat Malkus has noted, nationwide chronic absenteeism rates were at “29% in 2021–22 and 27% in the 39 states that have released data for 2022–23 (up from 15% in 2018–19).”

A recent article in New York magazine notes how common it has become recently for kids (of various economic strata) to take “mental health days.” For some, these have turned into longer term “school avoidance.” The author notes that allowing too many mental health days signals to kids that you think they can’t handle whatever is going wrong at school. Instead of indulging children, it would be better to signify that we actually think school is important and they need to face their problems. 

A surprising number of advocates believe that the cause of this problem is complicated. “Think of it like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” one nonprofit leader told the Press Herald. “If a student doesn’t have a place to live, an emotionally safe environment to go home to or enough food to eat, then school is not going to be a priority,” she said. Maybe, but presumably those same kids still had other needs before the pandemic and they managed to get to school significantly more often. Nevertheless, the Press Herald’s editorial board concluded that reinstating the child tax credit is the key to fixing this problem. 

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Meanwhile, an article in Axios suggests that “Chronic and acute illness, trauma, family responsibilities, housing and food insecurity” are all contributing to school absenteeism. There’s more on the list: “Academic or behavioral struggling, anxiety, unwelcoming school climate, undiagnosed disability.” Not to mention “Lack of challenging, culturally responsive instruction, no meaningful relationships to adults, need to work.”

Phew. There are clearly a lot of problems with schools and challenges for the kids who are trying to attend them. But this sounds more like a list of excuses by people who supported school shutdowns rather than a plan for getting kids back. Again, all of these problems existed before the pandemic. Why are they responsible for the steep decline in recent years? 

Of course, poverty is highly correlated with absenteeism. Parents who are poor are less likely to be educated and less likely to be concerned about their children’s education. And those who are concerned tend to live in underperforming school districts and many worry about the danger of sending their kids to school. But let’s not forget that school is also free babysitting (and often free meals) for kids. In other words, poor parents sometimes have more incentive to send their kids to school than other parents do. If they need to get to work, sending kids to school is a pretty good strategy. 

So what actually happened? Once officials signaled that school was optional, the idea took hold — both among students and parents. If teachers and administrators think it’s fine for us to stay home, then why shouldn’t we? Many localities also gave up on truancy officers so there was no one to enforce the rules about kids going to school either. Across the country, school districts and teachers’ unions told (disproportionately poor) families that they would need to make other arrangements. That they would need to stay home with their kids or leave them with relatives or in many cases leave them alone. Teachers I spoke with during the pandemic described Zooming with young children who were home alone or supervised by other children. One teacher described a kindergartner on Zoom at night, during what were supposed to be parent-teacher conferences, with some sort of pipe in his mouth. 

Different states are trying different approaches to the problem. Maine is organizing a “walking bus stop,” where someone comes to a child’s house and walks them to a bus stop. In Ohio, they are considering paying kids as young as 5 to go to school. A pilot program would offer $25 to kindergarteners and ninth graders just for showing up to class nine out of 10 days in the two-week span. A Republican legislator in the state explained that other forms of bribery haven’t been successful. “So, we’ve tried pizza day and we have tried playground hours and we have tried all kinds of foo-foo stuff. It doesn’t seem to work,” he said. 

Whether the cash will work is an open question. For older kids, $25 is not very much. Which is to say, if they were willing to put in a couple of hours at McDonald’s they could get more than that with a lot less effort. For younger kids, the question is really do their parents have an incentive, because no 5-year-old is getting up and getting ready for school alone. Do parents care about $25 every two weeks? Probably not. 

Earning trust back doesn’t come cheap. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.