Friday, March 29, 2024

Chronic Absenteeism in Law Schools?

Today, the NY Times published an article about chronic absenteeism in public schools post pandemic entitled, “Why School Absences Have ‘Exploded’ Almost Everywhere.” You can read the article here. Apparently, 26 percent of public-school students were considered “chronically absent” in 2023. I have been dealing with attendance issues in law schools during and after the pandemic, and this fact still surprised me. I imagine chronic absenteeism is even worse at the undergraduate level, where many large courses don’t take attendance at all.

Here at the University of Idaho, we recently adopted a new, stricter attendance policy in hopes of curbing absences and emphasizing the importance of in-class learning. What interests me is the tension I am observing between students missing classes and their strong preference for in-person learning. It seems we can all agree that learning together in the classroom is important, and that in-person classes are generally preferable to any remote option. And yet, attendance is still an issue in this post-pandemic world. What gives?

The article mentioned above explores factors leading to chronic school absences. Things like valuing flexibility, the availability of online makeup work, and people actually staying home when sick are likely at play. A rise in mental health issues (specifically anxiety and depression related issues) might also be creating greater barriers to attendance than in prior years.

I believe many law schools are trying to reinstate normal law school learning – that is the normal rigor of pre-pandemic legal education. But what is normal? I am presently recovering from the flu. I’m no longer contagious and back at work, but I’m still not totally healthy two weeks after falling ill. Where is line between accepting viruses are different these days – that sick-days might mean something different than they did in 2019, and encouraging and enforcing good attendance?

As we prepare law students for careers built on deadlines, timestamps, and getting to court on time, how do we find the sweet spot of teaching professionalism while offering empathy? How do we navigate attendance policies with a new generation of law students who may be normalized to a culture of chronic absenteeism in both high school and college? I think it will start with more time teaching quality academic behaviors and learning how to unteach absenteeism.

(Ashley Cetnar)

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