Will the students who didn’t show up for online class this spring go missing forever?

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Monica Williams remembers the late May day she and first grade teacher Lizette Gutierrez reconnected with the four young siblings from Cable Elementary. No teachers from the San Antonio elementary had heard from the children since schools closed abruptly in March due to the pandemic.

Williams is a former social worker who serves as a site coordinator for Communities in Schools of San Antonio, a support program for low-income families operating in more than 100 schools in Bexar County, including the city of San Antonio. She and her colleagues have had to intercede in evictions, deliver supplies and report children in dire circumstances to child protective services since the start of the pandemic. This time, she knew the family. She’d become acquainted with the children before the pandemic because of their academic struggles. After making some phone calls, she located them at a hotel, where the family had moved after wearing out their welcome with relatives. Williams arranged to meet the children at their grandmother’s.

Gutierrez and Williams spent 90 minutes standing on the sidewalk outside the house in the Texas sun, at arm’s length from the students, showing them how to sign into Google Classroom on their school-provided Chromebooks and helping their father figure out passwords.

The siblings logged on for the remainder of the school year. But then they went missing again, failing to show up for the district’s summer school program, which teachers had recommended for each of them. Now Williams and school staff are heading back out into the field, trying to relocate the siblings and other children who’ve gone missing and reengage them in learning this fall. With the siblings, they finally had some luck: The children showed up for school on September 29, the second day of in-person classes.

“It’s not just about academics,” said Williams. “We don’t have eyes on our students. We have to make sure they’re safe, they’re fed, that they’re still even in the district.”

An estimated 3,000 students, or roughly 3 percent of enrollment in San Antonio’s largest school district, Northside Independent, where Cable Elementary is located, didn’t participate in remote learning and couldn’t be reached by school staff this past spring, according to Barry Perez, a spokesperson for the district. Other districts around the country have reported similarly high numbers of missing students. Poor internet, a lack of laptops and hotspots, and instability at home are the factors most commonly cited for making participation in online learning difficult for kids.

Nationally, some school administrators took advantage of the summer to find new and better ways to identify and engage with missing students, and to build stronger connections between school and home. They replaced the hodgepodge of learning platforms and apps with more uniform systems, eliminating multiple passwords and making them easier to navigate. And they endeavored to better define how to take attendance and what it means to be absent or present in virtual education. These measures are showing signs of early success as some districts report a decrease from the spring in the number of kids who are no shows. But, with nearly 14,000 school districts nationally, the whereabouts of countless students are unknown, and some may never reenroll, administrators say.

When the San Antonio Independent School District moved to remote instruction in the spring, 6 percent of students (nearly 3,000 kids) never logged on.

The reality for many schools is that the search “could lead to a dead-end,” said Northside’s Perez. As of September, he said, the district’s enrollment is still 2,700 students shy of projections. While they might still show up, he said the district won’t learn of some children’s whereabouts unless they enroll in another district and their new school contacts them.

Related: Is it finally time for year-round school?

Some 3000 students went missing in the San Antonio Independent School District during the Covid shutdown. Mohammed Choudhury, the district’s chief innovation officer, said that the district was able to whittle that number down to fewer than 100 by fall thanks to home visits and attendance data from an app they created. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier, San Antonio Report
In the neighboring San Antonio Independent School District, Mohammed Choudhury, who serves as chief innovation officer, likewise anticipates that it will have children who won’t return this fall. Some families have decided that there are too many other things going on in their lives to think about their kids’ school or how to do online learning, and they’ve given up, Choudhury said. He and other educators worry also about the perception among some families that when school buildings are closed, school is also closed. For them, there’s no substitute for in-person learning, “So, they’re not going to respond to anything or even log in,” Choudhury said. “We’re going to lose students.”

When his district moved to remote instruction in the spring, 6 percent of students (nearly 3,000) never logged on. Early on, members of the district’s family and community engagement teams knocked on doors to find the missing students, but those visits were suspended in late March due to local health orders. Phone calls to parents and messages on social media went largely unanswered.

Late this summer, as the lockdown lifted and schools prepared for the new school year, staff were able to go back out. As of early September, Choudhury said, they had found all but roughly 100 of the missing kids.

Choudhury, whose job is to problem solve, attributed his district’s progress to its early recognition that it had to closely monitor daily attendance and student learning online. As soon as school buildings shut, he and his office began working with other departments and the district’s chief technology officer to create an easy-to-use phone app to allow educators to monitor students’ online activity. By April it was a data hub, tracking student engagement at all 90-plus district schools, including any contact between students and staff. Over a million pieces of information were collected by the end of the school year, according to Choudhury. Administrators used it to monitor trends and determine the neighborhoods and schools with low participation, then readily provide individual schools with data on which students weren’t signing on. It enabled school-level administrators to decide where to quickly deploy staff for home visits and other outreach, Choudhury said. Now the district is relying on a new learning management system, which replaced the app created in the spring, to enable it to identify and respond “better, faster and smarter” to struggling students and families.

“We had to do a lot of digging, a lot of searching [to locate our students].”

Adrian Montes, principal, Redland Elementary, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Florida

The district won’t know until October just how many students it has saved or lost. That’s when it, like many school districts around the country, will submit to the state the all-important enrollment data that helps determine its funding.

Related: Students can’t learn if they don’t show up at school

At Redland Elementary, a rural school in Florida’s Miami-Dade school district, nearly 10 percent of its roughly 900 students were unaccounted for this spring, according to Principal Adrian Montes. That’s when he and his staff fanned out across the mostly agricultural community in groups, using addresses they had on file and carrying laptops and hotspots in case families needed them. But often they’d show up at an address only to find it was a parent’s place of employment, not their home, or that the family had moved away.

Redland Elementary Principal Adrian Montes works one-on-one with a student who wasn’t signing on for online learning. Credit: Redland Elementary

 “We had to do a lot of digging, a lot of searching, speaking to the owners of these businesses” and workers to locate the students, said Montes.

But the outreach deepened the school’s connection to its families, he said, and helped them understand more about the lives of the children it serves. Some 90 percent of the school’s students are Hispanic, including a large population of migrant children from Guatemala whose parents work in local fields and plant nurseries. School staff learned that many of those parents kept working through the pandemic, leaving their children home alone and often in charge of younger siblings.

Redland Elementary staff distributed food and toiletries and worked with a district program that serves homeless families, Project UP-START, to ensure that students had access to services such as health care. Over the summer, Miami-Dade County Public Schools introduced new online learning software that will make it easier for students and their caregivers to log on remotely and will, ideally, increase participation in online learning this fall, Montes said.

Related: Homeless students set adrift by school closures face crisis after crisis

Education experts say that closely monitoring attendance will be key to ensuring that kids don’t slip through the cracks. When schools closed abruptly this spring, few opted to take regular or daily attendance, according to Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works. “It wasn’t seen as the highest-priority concern.”

In June, a survey of 201 school districts in Connecticut by the state education board found that 22 percent of students (some 116,000) had only partially or minimally participated in remote learning and 4 percent (21,000) had not participated at all.

Chang said that’s starting to change as schools reopen. But she cautioned that districts ought to use attendance not for purposes of “high-stakes accountability,” school funding or to punish parents whose kids don’t participate, but to learn which kids need support and which interventions are helping kids stay engaged.

The costs of kids missing instruction — even virtual teaching — are high. Studies show that students who miss 10 percent or more of school days a year are at risk of not learning to read in the early grades and dropping out in the later grades. Low-income students, students of color and students with disabilities are most vulnerable.

Connecticut has long been in the forefront of addressing chronic absenteeism. “We’re dogged” about making sure we have kids in school, said Charlene Russell-Tucker, a deputy commissioner for the Connecticut State Department of Education. From the outset of school closings in the spring, the education board has worked to ensure that teachers continue to track student participation and give the data to school administrators. It created webinars to allow districts to share best practices, such as sending school staff to non-attending kids’ homes and addressing families’ obstacles, according to Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer with the department.

San Antonio Independent School District created a bilingual guide to understanding attendance requirements in online learning to help students and parents navigate the new normal. Credit: San Antonio Independent School District

Still, the state fell far short of universal participation in remote school. In June, a survey of 201 school districts in Connecticut by the state education board found that 22 percent of students (some 116,000) only partially or minimally participated and 4 percent (21,000) did not participate at all.

Responding districts cited family, health and trauma issues and internet and device access as the biggest obstacles to student participation in online learning, according to the study. Students enrolled in the state’s 10 lowest-performing school districts were reported to have faced those issues more than students from wealthier districts.

In an effort to boost participation in learning this school year, the state invited input from families on how to reopen schools. In August, Russell-Trucker facilitated two virtual “house calls” with doctors, pediatricians and other health care officials to answer families’ questions about going back to school during the pandemic. Some 2,300 people signed on, she said.

“We could again have students who ‘disappear’ into the first months of the fall semester because of a disruption in the house when it comes to socioeconomic needs. We’re not blind to that, but much of that is out of our control, and we will do everything we can to mitigate that.”

Mohammed Choudhury, chief innovation officer, San Antonio Independent School District

The state has also prioritized “meeting families where they are” and ensuring that students in remote learning can occasionally meet in person with their teachers and peers, Gopalakrishnan said. “That personal connection is huge.”

Back in San Antonio, Choudhury cautions that even if districts locate every missing student and do everything right to keep them engaged, schools are likely to see more turmoil.

“There’s an eviction crisis clearly looming,” he said. “Housing policy is education policy.”

“We could again have students who ‘disappear’ into the first months of the fall semester because of a disruption in the house when it comes to socioeconomic needs,” Choudhury said. “We’re not blind to that, but much of that is out of our control, and we will do everything we can to mitigate that.”

Meanwhile, the district is being more proactive about checking in with students on a weekly basis and supporting the schools in doing so, Choudhury said. “We know the in-person is our bread and butter,” he said. “We’re never going to drop the in person.”