RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Chronic absenteeism in Virginia schools has risen precipitously since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Now, the state could once again revoke accreditation for schools where students don’t show up for class — including many in Henrico, Chesterfield, Richmond and Petersburg.

In Virginia, students are considered chronically absent when they miss more than 10% of classes in a given year. It’s an issue that state officials say has a huge impact on learning — and one that’s gotten much worse over the past few years.

Most schools now have a chronic absenteeism rate of over 10%. Slide to compare the distribution of rates in the 20-21 and 21-22 school years. (Charts courtesy of VDOE)

Accreditation Where It’s Due

At a Board of Education meeting on April 20, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) requested that the board extend an exemption to the state’s accreditation standards first introduced in 2020 during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chronic absenteeism was low during the 2020-2021 school year — when many divisions switched to virtual learning — but spiked during the next year as schools struggled to return students to the classroom in person.

“Due to the concern of absences caused by COVID-19, RSV and the flu, which influenced attendance in the Fall and Winter, it’s unclear whether the chronic absenteeism indicator is a measure of the divisions’ efforts to address chronically absent students,” a VDOE official said.

More than a quarter of students are chronically absent at nearly 30% of Virginia schools. All now risk losing accreditation under VDOE rules. (Courtesy of VDOE)

But the department’s request for leniency fell on mostly deaf ears at the board of education, with the majority of board members voting to reject the exemption and reimpose the accreditation measure.

“This administration has been telling us over and over again that they want to raise standards and raise expectations and suggesting that we’ve lowered [them] — which I might dispute — but here this seems like a lowering standards move,” said board member Anne Holton.

One board member, Dr. Alan Seibert, pushed back on opposition to the proposed exemptions. Seibert, who works for Roanoke City Public Schools, pointed out that the measure would still be tracked by VDOE, and schools that fall short would still be required to implement remediation plans — without risking their accreditation.

“It’s still reported, it’s still highlighted, it still becomes an action plan for schools that are lacking there,” he said.

Board president Daniel Gecker, who supported the original exceptions put in place during the early days of the pandemic, opposed renewing the exemption, saying the time had come for schools to tackle the problem head on.

“We are not asking schools to do something that they cannot do, what we are emphasizing is the need to focus on this item,” he said.

Who’s at Risk?

Now that the board has effectively voted to reinstate the standards, schools that see high rates of absenteeism could risk losing full accreditation and moving to “accreditation with conditions” — a status that allows the state to take a direct role in overseeing their efforts to repair the issues.

Chronic absenteeism issues are concentrated in the state’s Western and Southern divisions, with Central Virginia facing the fewest issues on a regional level. (Courtesy of VDOE)

“Approximately 28% of schools in Virginia will be accredited with conditions based on their chronic absenteeism performance level,” a VDOE official said.

In the City of Petersburg, just one school — the local high school — is fully accredited. But with a chronic absenteeism rate of 52% in the 21-22 school year, the school could lose that status next year.

Less than half of Richmond’s 26 elementary schools are fully accredited, and of the 12 that are, three are now at risk of losing their status. All three are majority Black and Hispanic.

In Chesterfield, all but one of the county’s middle schools are fully accredited. But at least five of them are now at risk of losing that status.

Henrico’s nine high schools are all currently fully accredited, but five of those schools — many of which have faced chronic staffing shortages — are at risk of losing their accreditation under the chronic absenteeism standards. All five are majority-minority schools.