Absence rate of Lawrence students much higher than in previous years, suggesting omicron variant may be taking a toll

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

The Lawrence school district’s absence rate among students this winter is much higher than what the district has seen in the past around the same time frame.

But because of the way the district collects data related to COVID-19, it’s not entirely clear that the increase is due solely to the global pandemic. However, it may provide a better glimpse of just how many students are being affected by the virus, even if the district does not formally note some cases as positive results.

The increased absences also appear to highlight how much more contagious the omicron variant of the virus is and how it might be affecting children more than previous variants have.

But a local health official said the omicron is so much more contagious that every age group is seeing a massive increase in cases.

“The emergence of omicron has sent our case counts radically upward — higher than they’ve ever been before thus far in the pandemic,” said Sonia Jordan, director of informatics for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. “Yes, we have more cases among kids, but we have more cases among everyone. Community transmission is very high and very present in our community right now.”

Increased student absences

On Monday, the school district reported that nearly 2,000 students were absent from school each of the three days after returning from winter break. Those 2,000 students make up roughly 19% of the district’s enrollment, meaning each day the district had an attendance rate of just a little more than 80%.

While some have suggested that winter often comes with students catching the cold and flu, leading to more absences than usual, the district has not seen this kind of absence rate in recent years.

Prior to the pandemic emerging in March 2020, the district recorded about a 95% attendance rate at the start of the spring semester during both the 2018-19 and 2019-2020 school years, according to district data provided to the Journal-World.

Additionally, last year, while the school district was also dealing with the pandemic, about 92% of students attended school at the beginning of the spring semesters. That is 10% to 12% better than the current school year.

However, district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said that the attendance rate last year may not be completely comparable because the district was using some remote learning at the time, along with in-person learning. Remote learning may have allowed some students to continue attending classes while they were sick or even asymptomatic for the virus.

But remote learning is largely not an option now, and its absence may be contributing to the high absentee rate.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis told the school board on Monday that state law currently allowed the district to offer only 40 hours of remote learning per student, which is about five school days. If the district were to go over that limit, it would put its state funding in jeopardy.

Incomplete picture?

But whether those 2,000 students are all staying away from school because of the virus is somewhat of a guess. According to the school district’s reported cases data from Wednesday, about 480 staff and students have been ordered to quarantine because of reported cases or for coming in close contact with a positive case. The vast majority of those cases are among elementary schools.

But that’s only a fraction of the number of students who are missing school. When asked about the discrepancy, Boyle said the district did not know how many absences were directly related to COVID or if they were from something else, such as the cold or flu.

Boyle said the district did not track specific reasons for absences when students were called out of school. That means parents who test their children at home and come up with a positive test are not in the district’s data.

Additionally, Boyle said they may also be home with illness, but have not yet been tested.

“We have advised school families to keep students at home if they are ill,” Boyle said. “Students could be at home with a symptom or symptoms without having been tested for COVID.”

Omicron effect on children

While children appear to be much more at risk of catching the omicron variant, local data suggests they are actually seeing cases at roughly the same rate as when the delta variant emerged.

Jordan said 12% of local cases were of children under 12 years old, which is roughly the same now as it was in August, when it was 13%. However, the 12-17 age group increased from 7% in August to 10% now.

But Jordan said the main difference in local data is just how many cases there are. The total number of cases from August is only about a third of what Douglas County currently has for the month of January, which is only two weeks in.

That suggests that while more children are catching the virus, they aren’t necessarily more susceptible than other age groups.

That also comes with children having the lowest vaccination rates in Douglas County. That is likely because they were the most recent groups to receive eligibility for the vaccines, with children between 5 and 11 only beginning to receive doses in November.

Despite that, Jordan said the vaccination rates among that age group are still relatively good. As of Friday, the department reported approximately 48% of Douglas County children between 5 and 11 have been vaccinated.

“There is still more work to do, but considering that 5-11 year olds only got approved roughly six weeks ago, it’s looking all right,” she said.

Comparatively, the national average is much lower. The Associated Press reported that, as of Tuesday, just over 17% of that age group was fully vaccinated.

With all that in mind, Jordan said she believed it was paramount for those who are able to get vaccinated to do so, especially those who are around children under the age of 5, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

“Those who are 4 years old and younger are not approved for a vaccine at this point and those under 2 years are unable to wear a mask, so this population does have a vulnerability that other ages may not,” Jordan said. “Families with children under 4 should (vaccinate and get boosted) as allowed in order to mitigate that vulnerability as much as possible.”

Contact Dylan Lysen

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact reporter Dylan Lysen:


Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.