Feb 8


School attendance continues to slide

Attendance has long been a problem in Buffalo schools. It got worse during the pandemic, and worse again with the resumption of classroom instruction last fall.

Attendance in Buffalo schools has gone from bad to worse this school year.

Last year, when instruction was mostly remote, 34 percent of students attended class at what the state considered a satisfactory rate. So far this school year, that number has dropped to 18 percent.

Conversely, the share of students with “severe” attendance problems – that is, they miss school at least one day a week, if not more – has jumped from 34 to 40 percent. 

District officials said there are many reasons for the increase: Ongoing transportation issues, inclement weather and, especially, an increase in COVID-19 cases – nearly 5,000 among staff and students during the first half of the school year. The ongoing spread has made a lot of parents hesitant, even unwilling, to send their children to school.

And, just like in past years, some students simply don’t feel like showing up, teachers and administrators told Investigative Post.

Comparing attendance rates

Category 2021-22* 2020-21** 2018-19***
Satisfactory 18% 34% 33%
At risk 17% 16% 25%
Chronic 27% 17% 25%
Severe 39% 34% 17%
* Through Jan. 24, 2022. Figures do not total 100% because of rounding.
** Through March 5, 2021. Figures do not total 100% because of rounding.
*** Pre-pandemic.
Source: Buffalo School District.

To combat absenteeism, the district has hired more attendance teachers, offered vaccination clinics, even purchased alarm clocks for students, said Dr. Tonja Williams, associate superintendent of student support services. They’ve also worked to provide students access to their normal course schedule from home in the case of COVID or other medical exemptions. 

The opportunity for a virtual learning option ends there, though, and parents say a lack of accommodation and opportunities has contributed to the high number of absences. 

“We are making it unnecessarily difficult for families,” said Wendy Mistretta, parent and president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “We’re having issues because we don’t have all the supports that we had.”

Many school districts are struggling with attendance problems, and one national study finding absenteeism is nearly triple what it was before the pandemic. 

The problem is a lack of positive learning environments, said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national organization that works to research and address absenteeism.

“What we need more than ever is to assure kids that school is a place you want to be,” Chang said. 

To do so, schools should work on restoring foundational supports – including tutoring, clubs, sports and other activities – many of which have been scaled back or eliminated because of pandemic restrictions, Chang said.

Low student attendance can result in lower grades and graduation rates and increased suspensions and dropouts. It only takes missing about a day of school a month to be considered “at risk” by researchers.

Some administrators say they’re already seeing those effects in their buildings.

“There’s already decisions being made,” one administrator said. “You have seniors that have already decided, ‘I’ll just move on and go get a GED.’ ”  

Attendance numbers

Attendance in Buffalo’s schools – already a problem – worsened during remote learning. 

From the start of last school year through the first week of March, only 34 percent of students logged on to their virtual homerooms often enough to have satisfactory attendance, which is defined as missing school no more than once a month. Another 34 percent were severely absent, meaning they missed at least one day a week, if they participated in class at all. The rest fell somewhere in between.

Teachers, administrators and parents told Investigative Post that absenteeism during that time was largely due to difficulties with technology, trauma associated with the pandemic, shortcomings in district policies, and students not wanting to show up.

School resumed in person at the start of this school year, but attendance has dropped even lower. Less than one in five students now have satisfactory attendance. 

Attendance by school this academic year

School % Severe % Chronic % At Risk % Satisfactory
McKinley High School 72% 14% 8% 6%
East Community High School 68% 19% 6% 7%
ECHC For Children 68% 18% 5% 9%
Emerson School of Hospitality 66% 21% 7% 5%
Riverside High School 61% 25% 7% 7%
Buffalo School of Culinary Arts & Hospitality 61% 21% 9% 9%
Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy 60% 28% 9% 3%
International Prep at Grover 60% 21% 10% 9%
Math Science Technology Prep 59% 20% 11% 10%
South Park High School 56% 21% 12% 11%
Research Laboratory High School 55% 20% 11% 15%
Burgard High School 54% 25% 12% 9%
D’Youville Porter Campus 53% 28% 11% 8%
Bennett High School 53% 23% 15% 9%
Marva J. Daniel Futures Prep School 51% 27% 13% 10%
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50% 27% 11% 11%
Community School 48% 28% 14% 10%
Dr. Lydia T. Wright School 47% 31% 14% 8%
Bilingual Center 47% 31% 13% 9%
Math Science Technology 47% 34% 14% 6%
B.U.I.L.D. Community School 46% 31% 13% 10%
Drew Science Magnet Annex 46% 30% 13% 11%
Frank A Sedita Academy 45% 28% 12% 14%
Southside Elementary 43% 29% 17% 11%
Harvey Austin School 41% 32% 15% 11%
Hamlin Park Clapp Academy 41% 27% 19% 13%
Arthur O. Eve School of Distinction 40% 31% 18% 10%
Drew Science Magnet School 39% 33% 14% 14%
Lafayette International High School 39% 20% 15% 26%
Early Childhood Center 38% 28% 16% 18%
Roosevelt ECC 37% 28% 21% 14%
Hillery Park Elementary 37% 33% 17% 14%
Houghton Academy 37% 29% 19% 16%
West Hertel Academy 36% 26% 17% 21%
Stanley M. Makowski E.C.C. 36% 31% 18% 16%
Lorraine Elementary 35% 29% 19% 16%
Lovejoy Discovery School 35% 28% 20% 16%
Buffalo Elementary School of Technology 35% 26% 15% 24%
Early Childhood Center 17 34% 32% 20% 14%
Highgate Heights Elementary 34% 32% 20% 14%
Waterfront Elementary 34% 28% 20% 18%
Academy for Visual and Performing Arts 33% 30% 20% 17%
Harriet Ross Tubman School 32% 31% 21% 16%
Leonardo da Vinci High School 32% 27% 20% 22%
Middle Early College High School 32% 26% 20% 23%
Native American Magnet School 31% 24% 20% 25%
Grabiarz School of Excellence 30% 35% 18% 17%
International School 45 30% 32% 20% 19%
Dr G. Blackman School of Excellence 29% 31% 22% 19%
Hutchinson Central Technical High School 28% 27% 20% 25%
Pantoja School of Academic Excellence 27% 27% 20% 25%
Bennett Park Montessori School 26% 29% 22% 22%
School 81 26% 31% 22% 21%
Occupational Training Center 23% 39% 25% 13%
Frederick Law Olmsted School 16% 26% 25% 34%
Discovery School 15% 29% 25% 31%
North Park Community School 11% 18% 31% 40%
City Honors 11% 19% 24% 47%
Frederick Law Olmsted North 10% 18% 24% 48%
Total* 39% 27% 17% 18%
* Through Jan. 24, 2022. Figures to not total 100% because of rounding.
Source: Buffalo School District.

High schools have had the worst attendance, in particular, McKinley, Riverside, East Community and the Emerson School of Hospitality. Each has 60 percent or more of students missing at least a day of school a week.

Frederick Law Olmsted North and City Honors, which include middle and high school programs, have the highest satisfactory attendance rates, but they fall short of 50 percent. 

COVID is a major cause

District officials say the increase in absenteeism in Buffalo is largely due to COVID.

As of mid-January, the district reported 4,938 cases for the school year among staff and students. Officials noted that figure could be higher because it doesn’t include take-home test results that were never reported to the Erie County Health Department. 

Some students get sick and are unable to participate in virtual learning. It’s resulted in more short-term absences than usual, Williams said.

But the absences caused by COVID include more than those excused because students are sick. Many families simply don’t want to chance exposure.

“[Families] have expressed to us that they have a fear of sending their children into school,” Williams said. “They’re afraid that their children could come in contact with someone that has COVID.”

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Parents said there is some of that fear, but it’s only partially to blame for the absences. 

“I think that the district is really over-emphasizing that,” said Jessica Bauer Walker, parent and executive director of Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo. “I think the district is not aware of all the health and social issues that our families are struggling with. And that is a significant contributing factor.”

Williams said students have struggled to get to school because a shortage of bus drivers has limited transportation options. Others are out on short- or long-term suspensions. And 431 students aren’t permitted to attend because they aren’t fully immunized against diseases such as mumps and chickenpox. In New York, students have to receive all required vaccines in order to attend or remain in school unless they have a medical exemption.

Riverside as an example

Teachers who spoke with Investigative Post said classroom attendance is lower than normal for reasons beyond COVID. 

“It’s a teeny bit worse this year,” said Marc Bruno, a history teacher at Riverside Academy. 

Attendance in Buffalo schools was a problem long before the pandemic. For example, only 33 percent of students in the 2018-19 school year had a satisfactory attendance record. That rate actually went up by a percentage point last school year, when instruction was remote.

Attendance this year in Bruno’s four history classes illustrates the continuing problem. Factoring out absences due to COVID or other “excused” absences such as doctor appointments or religious holidays, half of his 72 students missed class at least one day a week. 

Some missed a lot more than that, and others he’s barely seen at all, Bruno said. 

“​​Some just don’t come to school. Some don’t come to school until 10 or 11. They just don’t want to get up in the morning,” he said. “That’s something that we need to address.”

Attendance in Riverside history classes

Category Percent
Satisfactory 10%
At risk 15%
Chronic 25%
Severe 50%
Through Jan. 4, 2022
Source: Teacher attendance records.

Bruno said COVID has increased the number of absences he’s seen in years past, but the district is giving it more emphasis than it deserves. He attributes the increasing absenteeism rates to the relaxing of local and state policies around attendance over the years.

“There’s no consequence for not coming to school,” he said. 

District response

To address absenteeism, the district is surveying parents and regularly analyzing the attendance data to see where support is needed, Williams said.

The district also hired seven new attendance teachers this school year, increasing the total to 21. Attendance teachers work with families to address and resolve the reasons for absenteeism. They’ll soon start working on Saturdays.

“Usually our attendance teachers are out during the work day and folks are at work,” Williams said. “But there’s a better chance that they’ll get to have a conversation with the family on a Saturday.”

Along with more attendance teachers, the district hired an additional social worker and continues to work with the county’s Health Department to set up vaccination clinics.

The district offers a virtual learning option, where students can access their regular course schedule from home. The option is limited to students who have medical exemptions or those sick or exposed to COVID-19. 

Parent concerns

Parents told Investigative Post that the district restricting access to virtual learning is contributing to increased absenteeism. Some are asking for the option expanded.

“That’s been one of the consistent and persistent requests,” said Mistretta, the parent leader. “Let us have access to remote for all the kids who had buses that didn’t show up … It wasn’t their fault, but they couldn’t use remote.”

Parents said they’d also like to see a lot more community partnerships.

“There’s a lot of opportunities that our families aren’t getting right now, and the kids are suffering because of that,” Bauer Walker said.

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“We have to expand the partnerships that can really support kids and families,” said Chang of Attendance Works. “You need people to build relationships, and it means we need more people supporting [within] our schools, and that can be both virtually and in person.”

The implications of high absenteeism on student achievement are well documented.

“What we know is that if you’re not in school learning, it’s going to contribute to getting lower grades. It’s going to continue to lower graduation rates, which will forever impact [a student’s] ability to earn incomes, to support their families,” Williams said.

Some principals told Investigative Post they’re already seeing that impact. 

“The reality of it is, we’ve lost another year,” one administrator said.

Investigative Post

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