Despite being three years out of the height of COVID-19, academic performance in Connecticut schools is still below pre-pandemic levels, according to new data.

At a recent news conference, the state’s Department of Education released 2022-23 attendance and student assessment data that showed two main highlights: that chronic absenteeism has declined for the first time since the pandemic began but still remains high, and that student test scores have generally flatlined compared to 2021-22 and still remain below pre-pandemic levels.

“I think [the data] actually reflects how hard this work is,” said Ajit Gopalakrishnan, the department’s chief performance officer. “We’ve seen a decline in chronic absence, and that’s great, but we’ve got a lot more work to do [with attendance and test scores] — and it’s not easy work.”

Regardless of a nearly 4% improvement in chronic absenteeism since the 2021-22 school year, about 20%, or 100,000 students, across the state are still missing at least 10% or more of time in the classroom. Prior to the pandemic, in 2018-19, about 10.4% of students were chronically absent.

Education consultant Kari Sullivan-Custer said Monday that the education department had surveyed over 5,000 Connecticut families regarding absences to learn why rates are still twice as high as before the pandemic. Responding families said illness was a leading factor for keeping their students at home, followed by mental health and family obligations.

“We asked the [families] ‘What can we do to help you in attendance so students go back to school?’ and the No. 1 reason is [to make] students feel like they’re part of the school community. … Frequent engagement with professionals will help students. … [And,] ensuring that other families are keeping kids home so illnesses don’t spread, help with language barriers, engaging classroom settings, … are good approaches to reducing chronic absence in our schools,” Sullivan-Custer said. “This work requires a mindset shift, moving from a punitive-sort-of-truancy approach to a chronic absenteeism approach where we get to the root cause of why our students aren’t coming to school.”

Read more: CT school performance, attendance scores slow to recover