Why are so many Ohio kids missing so much school? Could … – The Columbus Dispatch

David McClough is associate professor of economics at Ohio Northern University’s James F. Dicke College of Business Administration.
In Ohio, absenteeism has risen 20% 
And we are not alone.
A Stanford Economist has found that absenteeism from school has increased dramatically across the country. 
The theory proposed to explain this phenomenon centers around the idea that the requirement to remain at home during Covid disrupted the habit of waking up to go to school. 
The hypothesis relies on a positive correlation between the absenteeism rate and the duration of virtual schooling across states.  Although correlation does not indicate causation, this finding is now part of an education policy debate. 
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The concern is that the finding may inhibit consideration of alternative explanations. For example, an alternative explanation that warrants consideration is how the pervasive deployment of electronic devices alters the school experience and accommodates, if not promotes absenteeism. 
I embrace the importance of habit formation to inform social, political and economic behavior. 
Changes in behavior reflect new norms that reflect sometimes modest and sometimes dramatic events. Elevated absenteeism is not surprising. What is surprising is that absenteeism is not higher than the elevated levels.
Let’s consider some of the other changes that preceded higher absenteeism in the wake of the COVID crisis. 
There has been a deliberate adoption of communication electronics in schools. Often referred to generically as technology, we are fed a steady stream of justifications for the expense and presence of this equipment. 
Most commonly, the introduction of the equipment is intended to prepare young people to use the tools that are part of modern life. 
Never is evidence presented suggesting that the equipment contributes to learning or even improved standardized test scores. For full disclosure, I am not inclined to accept the premise that higher test scores signify learning. 
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Nonetheless, the equipment is marketed to school districts who purchase and deploy it, arguably to say to taxpayers that the district is committed to the idea of technology in the classroom. In actuality, once purchased, there is more stuff in the classroom. 
It may vary by district or school, but, eventually, students receive a personal device to use at school and at home. Class materials are accessed from the device and assignments are submitted using the device. Students learn grades using the device, and teachers may even provide comments. 
Few if any classes include a textbook, and when reading is required, it is very short. 
Prior to COVID, many parents worked outside their residence. 
Once stay-at-home orders, layoffs, and remote work lunged into the vernacular and supplanted the routine that we knew, students remained home as well.
 Virtual school replaced in-person school. Fortunately, in one sense, students and faculty were familiar with the equipment and the new way of doing school imposed by the equipment. Indeed, for decades many families opted out of face-to-face schooling in favor of virtual schooling for any number of seemingly legitimate reasons.
In sum, familiarity with use of the equipment lessened the disruption of virtual school imposed on students. 
The arrival of the pandemic created a natural experiment otherwise impossible in scale and scope. The equipment and the idea of virtual school were tested.
 Without controversy, it can be stated that the evidence is compiling to suggest that many young people fell even further behind than they would have with face-to-face instruction.
It is the most vulnerable members of society, who are reportedly harmed the most, inevitably exacerbating the inequality of opportunity already inhibiting attainment of their potential. 
Nonetheless, don’t be surprised when proposed solutions, quite ironically, involve greater reliance on various forms of communication electronics, a.k.a. technology.
 Technology is never an impartial tool used to benefit or to harm. Technology changes how people live as well as relations between people. Technology necessarily alters the relation between teachers and students as well as how learning occurs.
Technology has the potential to isolate children and deny them the social benefits derived in an active learning environment. Sadly, the real cost to children and society may be ignored because the increase in absenteeism is easily measured and funding of schools is linked to attendance.
 It is more likely that absenteeism is not the problem but a single symptom of a larger problem. 
Unquestionably, schools make it possible for parents to work outside the home. With more parents working remotely from home, the value of this function, if not openly acknowledged, is reduced.
 Parents have less incentive to send their children to school each morning because children can remain at home and still access school materials. That absenteeism is not higher reveals that children, even teens, want to go to school. 
They sense the benefits of being present and prize social interaction with peers and teachers. I do not need to belabor this point. 
Readers are very likely aware that many firms, including those that produce the products that permit remote work and virtual schooling, are requiring workers to return to the office due to the immediate and measurable collapse in productivity. 
While some firms have found a way to use remote work effectively, the evidence of the natural experiment reveals that it is not for everyone and not appropriate for all firms. Virtual schooling certainly is not for all children or teens. 
Technology is not a disinterested tool absent of moral consequences. 
There are always winners and losers. When educating children, the focus has to be the impact on learning. Perhaps it is time for school boards and administrators to assess the decisions that made it possible and motivated children to stay home. 
David McClough is associate professor of economics at Ohio Northern University’s James F. Dicke College of Business Administration.


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