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As more students experience poor mental health, Wisconsin absenteeism rates rise

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More than a third of U.S. high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, according to a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, chronic absenteeism rates jumped in Wisconsin while graduation rates dropped.

Larry Palubicki, the district administrator for the School District of Crandon, notices a problem that educators across the country are running into.

“We’re just finding that more and more kids are needing some type of mental health service,” he says.

Since the pandemic, nearly half of students have reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless, according to data from the CDC’s Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey.

Palubicki says this is a consequence of students missing school for an extended period of time because of the COVID pandemic.

“They were completely isolated from their friend groups, they were isolated from the routine of the school day, they were isolated from whatever extracurricular or hobbies or clubs or anything that they were part of,” he says. “There was just a lot of isolation and for some students that was very hard to understand.”

Most students in the Northwoods are back to in-person school now, but mental health challenges have not gone away.

One way that’s playing out is rising chronic absenteeism rates. A student is chronically absent if they miss 16 percent of the school days they were enrolled.

The chronic absenteeism rate in Wisconsin during the 2019-2020 school year was 12.9 percent, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Last year, it jumped to 16 percent.

Palubicki says he’s noticed this issue at Crandon.

He thinks attendance is down partly because students are more likely to stay home now if they feel sick, but in some cases, it’s more than that.

“For some students also it’s been hard to reintegrate back into the routine of a school day,” he says.

Either way, higher absenteeism rates mean more missed class time, and Palubicki says that makes it even more difficult to fill in the gaps missed during the pandemic.

Governor Tony Evers is addressing the issue by dedicating $15 million for mental health support for kids in school as part of his "Get Kids Ahead" initiative.

Crandon will receive more than $21,000 through that initiative.

But Palubicki says the problem in rural areas is finding enough qualified mental health providers willing to come to the school.

Erin Gottsacker joined WXPR in December 2020. As a Morning Edition host and reporter, Erin reports on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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