Enrollment decreased, truancy increased; education commissioner says pandemic has affected nearly every measure of academic success

photo by: Screen capture of Kansas State Department of Education

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson on Tuesday shared the state's academic struggles during the pandemic with the State Board of Education. He warned that graduation rates, which have risen steadily since 2015, will likely decline this year.

TOPEKA — In the first year and a half of the pandemic, Kansas schools have seen a troubling decrease in enrollment and attendance and an increase in truancy and chronic absenteeism.

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson told the State Board of Education on Tuesday that from 2019 to 2021, enrollment in Kansas schools fell by more than 15,000 students, and the rate of chronic absenteeism has risen more than 4%. He said the pandemic likely has affected nearly every measure of academic success and social-emotional health.

The warning comes after Kansas saw a record high in graduation rates for students with disabilities, students living in poverty and English language learners. The state has also seen postsecondary success rates improve, but Watson warned during his annual report to the board that the pandemic offered challenges never before seen in academics.

“The last 18 months have been the hardest on our state, and schools are a microcosm of that, in the history of our public and private schools,” Watson said.

While graduation and dropout rates are not yet available for 2021, Watson warned those would likely take a turn for the worse. He compared the effect of the pandemic to the unpredictability of a tornado and the widespread destruction of a hurricane.

This “storm” caused by COVID-19 comes at a time when educators across the state are working to shift the way Kansas students are taught to focus on “soft skills” in addition to academic achievement. A program that focuses on those goals, Kansans Can, was launched in 2017 and has seen mixed results.

“In some ways, we were ahead of schedule (on the program) going into 2020,” Watson said. “You’re not going to be able to say anything other than how the pandemic affects us. We’re living it. We don’t know yet.”

Many of the academic achievement issues occurring across the country are reflected in Kansas, Watson said. For example, there were 2,239 instances of formal truancy paperwork being filed in 2021, up from 767 in 2019.

The number of students learning remotely jumped from zero to 34,104 as students were forced to quarantine to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The number of parents refusing to allow their students to take state exams rose to 1,964, according to the state Department of Education.

Both the board members and Watson said one key to weathering the virus was focusing on a structured education plan. Wichita board member Betty Arnold specifically mentioned individual plans of study, which are required for every Kansas middle school student to identify career clusters and interests and help toward achieving a postsecondary degree in those areas.

“We know with the individual plan of study there are some districts that really are validating and supporting that, and then there are districts that do just enough,” Arnold said. “That’s a great concern, because what kind of plan would we have to make sure that districts statewide are appreciating the value of the individualized plan of study and are implementing it?”

With more jobs requiring a college degree, education officials have put more emphasis on helping students explore potential careers.

Watson said that like any new approach or remodel, it would take time to get all districts up to speed on how to use individual plans of study. He pointed to DeSoto and Piper schools as “gold level” districts that are using the plans well.

“We’re not there, but we’ll get there,” Watson said. “We have a rubric. We’re measuring every school against that, and when you get to the gold level you have all of those things in place that would lead to the deep understanding of having a good IPS.”

— Noah Taborda reports for Kansas Reflector.


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