Schools Struggle to Address Alarming Number of Students Not Attending Class During the Pandemic
Tanzina Vega: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. The debate over whether to reopen schools for in-person learning has been one of the most contentious issues of the past year. Amid all the back and forth on remote versus in-person schooling, one troubling trend has emerged, many students have stopped attending school completely. One estimate from the non-profit group Bellwether Education Partners found that schools lost touch with as many as three million marginalized students between the start of the pandemic and the fall of 2020.
Those students include children in the foster care system, English language learners, and children with disabilities. In Broward County, Florida, which is the second-largest school district in that state, officials have found that about 800 students are no longer going to class. In an attempt to get these children back into the system, some social workers in the district have been going door to door.
Lilia Francois: There's a lot of instances where we don't have the phone numbers, we don't have any contact information. That's where we have to hit the pavement and go to the homes and knock on those doors to see if the kids-- It's also a wellness check because if we haven't heard from a kid, they have not logged in, we want to make sure that they're okay.
Tanzina Vega: That's Lilia Francois, a social worker with the Broward school district, and reporter Veronica Zaragovia spoke to her for WLRN's Class of COVID-19 project, which is about the education crisis for Florida's vulnerable students today. Veronica joins me now. Welcome to the show.
Veronica Zaragovia: Thank you, Tanzina.
Tanzina Vega: Veronica, 800 kids are missing in the Broward County school district. What are the typical reasons that you've heard that they have not shown up to school?
Veronica Zaragovia: One, it started with a lot of shifting of start dates for schools and e-learning software that didn't work. That started leaving out a lot of students and frustrated parents. Then there are also so many who are facing housing instability, parents who work really tough schedules and can't be there to oversee their learning progress, and families who are struggling to buy enough food or to afford childcare. It's a lot of issues that are keeping them from going to school consistently.
Tanzina Vega: How are the school district or the social workers that you've spoken to able to track these students down? We heard a little bit from your interview with the social worker, Lilia Francois. Tell us more about that.
Veronica Zaragovia: Well, it first starts with the teacher reaching out to a parent. Then when a teacher is unable to get through or to find the parent and the student, then they'll involve that grade administrator and a guidance counselor. By the time a social worker like Lilia Francois gets involved, the school has tried everything, reaching out to emergency contacts like grandparents, asking classmates if they know where the student is. Then someone like Lilia will get in the car and go find the students at the home that they have on record.
Tanzina Vega: Have the social work visits and these wellness checks been successful largely or do they still turn up without being able to find the children?
Veronica Zaragovia: I would say that they're able to locate them. There are about 800 students who completely stopped going to school in Broward County. There might be students who have either moved out of state, there are students who have moved to another school or some are doing homeschooling, some have been able to go to private schools. In the Class of COVID-19 project, one of my colleagues covered migrant family students who have been hard to track down. Some of them, unfortunately, might not be able to connect with.
Tanzina Vega: You mentioned a lot of different options. Some of these students might be being homeschooled, some of them may have moved. We know lots of people moved during the pandemic, but I am particularly concerned about students who fall off of the radar who are in homes where they could be experiencing anything, different types of abuse, or not having the type of family structure that will allow for homeschooling, or, as you mentioned earlier, some of these students may be homeless. Do we know how many of the students that are going unaccounted for are in those types of situations?
Veronica Zaragovia: We know that the school superintendent in Broward County, Robert Runcie, said about 59,000 students aren't making enough progress academically. About two-thirds are low-income students, nearly a quarter have disabilities. I don't know within this number of students who are really struggling, how many are homeless. That's a huge issue that's impacting people in South Florida and across the country where they are either being evicted or they're moving in with relatives or they're living week to week in motels. That's a huge issue in the State of Florida especially in Central Florida in the Orlando area.
Because the term of homelessness is so complicated and broad, it's a hard number to pin down. When I shadowed Lilia Francois, she had gone first to a home that they had on record, and they weren't living there anymore. I witnessed how then Lilia started making calls and found the right home that we went to, and then she found the family.
Tanzina Vega: How was the student? What had happened to that particular student?
Veronica Zaragovia: The student, according to her mother, Maria, at first, she felt fearful of going back to school because of the coronavirus. They also said that she didn't have access to a laptop and that she didn't have internet for quite a bit of time because the mother has been unemployed for a lot of the pandemic. There was a communication barrier. Language barriers play a huge role. She said she wasn't receiving information in Spanish. The school district has communicated about multiple opportunities to pick up laptops but there was just a lot of missed opportunities to connect with her. Finally, then Lilia Francois made it to her home with a laptop.
Tanzina Vega: Veronica, does the Broward County school district have a plan to deal with the gap in achievement that some of these students may be dealing with if they've been gone for a while?
Veronica Zaragovia: Yes. The social workers play critical roles in this because they do everything from bringing laptops and teaching students how to log on, all the way to intervening in mental health crises. I think they're depending a lot on social workers to help bring them back. They're also, from what I observed, taking an approach that doesn't have punitive measures, and they're just trying and trying, and trying. Lilia Francois told me she was even going to that home to test what bus route this student could take to get to another school that would be closer to the home that they moved to.
They're offering help with connecting to internet. They told me about deals that the internet providers here have so that that can make WiFi affordable for students in public school systems. I think they're trying as much as possible to offer-- They offer peers who would be tutors to the students. Now, this student, Marjorie, has been able to-- For about 9, 10 months she wasn't enrolled in any school. I learned that very recently, she's now enrolled in a charter school that offers vocational training and one-on-one education. This is, I would say, a huge part of Lilia Francois' work, that she made sure the student would be back in school.
Tanzina Vega: Veronica Zaragovia is a reporter for WLRN in Miami. Veronica, thanks so much for joining us.
Veronica Zaragovia: Thank you so much for having me.
Tanzina Vega: Broward County is just one of the many school districts struggling to make sure that vulnerable students don't fall out of the education system altogether during the pandemic. With me now to talk about how districts are responding nationwide is Erin Einhorn, a national reporter for NBC News Digital. Erin, thanks for being with us.
Erin Einhorn: Thanks so much for having me, and for focusing on this issue.
Tanzina Vega: We mentioned that as many as three million vulnerable students may have stopped attending school completely during the pandemic. What do we know about who these students are, nationally?
Erin Einhorn: As Veronica said, in Broward, some of those students might be in private schools, some of them might be homeschooling, but a lot of them appear just not to be in school at all. By vulnerable, we mean children with special needs, children who don't speak English well, who their parents don't speak English well. They're learning to speak English. They might be homeless, they might be in foster care.
The students who were, as in the Broward example, least likely to get the message about, "School's virtual this year, but it's happening. Here is how you get a laptop. Here is how you get connected, and here's how you get what you need to keep your child in class." A lot of these families are just so overwhelmed that the logistics of getting their children connected is just so overwhelming. They may not even realize that they're supposed to be in school.
Tanzina Vega: How much of this has to do, and I'm looking at this from the perspective of someone who's in myself, I'm in New York City and I know that we've had, we've gone back and forth, back and forth on opening and closing depending on infection rates, how much of the students falling through the cracks here is because of the inconsistency that many of the schools across the country have been facing about whether in-person learning or remote learning?
Erin Einhorn: The schools are inconsistent and so are the lives of many of the families affected. The rate of child hunger at a time when even schools that are open might not be providing consistent free lunches. Housing instability for families with children is higher than it's been in an awfully long time. All of those different things, parents may have lost their jobs, they may have become sick, they may have lost a loved one who was supporting the family, all of those different things that families need as support, could be disrupted.
Then if the school's hybrid, okay, you got to keep track, okay, it's Monday and Wednesday or, you got to keep track of some schedule or it's open this week, but, oh, no, now there's a case and everybody's quarantining and you just, it's just, it's a lot even for families who have all the resources.
Tanzina Vega: We also know that there've been higher rates of absences, not just total disappearances, but absences. Are we seeing that as well? More students just not being in class for extended amounts of time.
Erin Einhorn: Yes, absolutely. Even before the pandemic, we had, it was something like eight million children, one in seven were chronically absent, meaning missing 10% of school days, which is an indicator of all kinds of other challenges in the children's lives, but also a predictor. If you're not going to read by third grade, you're going to fail classes in middle school, you're going to drop out in high school. While there's no national attendance data to say what that looks like now, districts that have released numbers, that number has doubled, which means 16 million kids or one in five.
Tanzina Vega: You're saying that there has been a significant increase in students who are also chronically absent. Is that right?
Erin Einhorn: Yes, and not only that but a lot of States during the pandemic have changed how they define attendance in the first place. Maybe you log in once a day and you're marked present, but anyone who's got kids doing virtual school know that just because you're logged in doesn't mean, you might have glitchy internet or someone's running the vacuum or there's a baby screaming or, they can't, or they just can't sit that long. You can be connected, but, are you listening? Are you learning? Are you really present? There's so many other things going on.
Tanzina Vega: Erin, one of the things that we've mentioned in the first segment were that some of these students may have ended up in private school, some of them may be homeschooled, some of them may, their parents may have left, but I'm particularly also concerned about the students who's safety might be at risk. Schools are often the place where educators are trained to spot things like malnutrition and physical abuse and other types of abuse. What happens to these students?
It worries me that there are children who could be in very dangerous scenarios right now and no one is available there to help them. Do we know whether there are programs similar to what's happening in Broward where social services folks are sent out or wellness checks are happening?
Erin Einhorn: Certainly, lots of districts are doing the best that they can, but not every district has the resources to go door to door or the number of students who need help might be higher than their resources exist. With enrollment down, most states in this country fund schools on a per-pupil basis. If you have fewer children this year, you're going to get less money next year. You're going to have fewer resources and we're going to have all these kids showing up who've missed a year of school, and they're not just behind academically, they've experienced trauma, they've lost loved ones, they've seen their parents struggling, they're going to show up at school.
All of this is going to be landing on schools next fall or whenever we're back to normal. Those schools are going to need more resources than they needed before and, unless we significantly change the way we fund schools, they're going to have less money, fewer people to help these kids.
Tanzina Vega: Erin, the Biden administration from the beginning, I'm sorry, has made it, opening-- reopening schools, I should say, a priority. They've since walked that back a little bit saying that they're hoping to reopen schools maybe not five days a week, maybe one day a week for in-person learning, but has the Biden administration released any plans that specifically address the attendance issues in schools that we're talking about today?
Erin Einhorn: There's a lot of different plans that there's ambitious proposals, but all of that's going to be subject to congressional approval. There's the actual sausage-making process behind any legislation that's going to need to fund it. We're all going to have to see where that plays out, without saying who-- I'm certain the administration is aware of the problems facing schools and the resources they're going to need, but how they prioritize that and also how that gets distributed. The money goes through the states and the states might have some control over how to use the money or how to prioritize which schools will get the priority and things like that, so we're all going to have to see how that plays out.
Tanzina Vega: We also know that Black and Latino parents have concerns about some of their kids returning to in-person learning because of a lack of trust in the education system. Do we know whether or not that may have factored into a lot of some of these students who were missing?
Erin Einhorn: Well, absolutely. A lot of those, a lot of Black children, Native children, Latinos, first of all, they've taken the brunt of the pandemic. A lot of their parents are the frontline workers, they've been exposed to the virus. Those communities in many parts of the country have been hit really hard. They've seen many people that they love die from COVID, so they're not going to take a risk and send their children into a school after years of these, and especially in the urban areas, these are the schools that have the fewest resources and the least experienced teachers.
They have many years of evidence that they should be skeptical about how their children are going to be treated in school and they're older buildings in a lot of cities, they're deteriorated, the infrastructure has deteriorated. They might not have windows that open, they might not have good ventilation. They may not be the best place to send your child to school during a pandemic. It requires a lot of trust and that trust has been eroded and how do you build that back at a time like this?
Tanzina Vega: Do we have a sense of what some of the long-term effects could be on the students who may have this huge gap or their learning may be disrupted for even longer time than we expected?
Erin Einhorn: I don't think anybody knows for sure. We certainly know what happens when children fall behind. You fall a little bit behind and that erodes your self-esteem and then you start feeling bad about yourself and you become less motivated. Maybe it's different if there's more kids in that situation with you. Are we going to keep the same standards and expectations we always had? If we had a standard that said children need to be able to have this skill by third grade and that skill by sixth grade, are we going to hold children to that?
The standardized testing and we're going to grade the schools and shut them down if they're not succeeding and fire their teachers and all these things. Are we going to use all those same standards that we had before like none of this happened? Those are all policy decisions that are going to play out differently in different states.
Tanzina Vega: Like I said, I really hope that we can sort some of this out because there are real lives at stake here. Thank you for your reporting. Erin Einhorn is a national reporter for NBC News Digital. Erin, thanks so much.
Erin Einhorn: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Latisha: Hi, this is Latisha from Brockton. As a parent, my biggest struggle with remote learning right now is finding that balance between, oh my goodness, my child is being left behind because they're not learning anything or they're not reading a book, I don't know what they're doing, and oh, it's snowing. You know what, why don't you go outside and play and have a snow day and I'll just tell your teacher you're not coming in. I'm finding it really hard to let them have a childhood, but then also maintain a good learning education.
Gina: This is Gina. I live in Florida. I'm a parent of remote or e-learners we call them. Our teachers are doing a great job concerning these challenges they have. I don't work right now, though I could. I'm grateful that I can spend more time with my children though overseeing schoolwork has been difficult.
My nine-year-old is doing well with learning the career acquired studies but suffers greatly in developmental socializing. He is also so impulsive and has a hard time resisting the internet always at his fingertips. I have to watch carefully and can't do much with chores or work around the house. Our 16-year-old feels isolated and would rather ghost teachers. I can't see sending my children back to in-person school right now since new variants are spreading like wildfire. I have asthma and cardiac issues, so I'm high-risk.
Natalie: My name is Natalie. I'm calling from San Diego, California. I keep hearing about stories of parents and teachers who are struggling with remote learning. The thing I keep running into is there are a lot of kids out there that actually are thriving in remote learning. I don't feel that that is covered very much, it's almost like it's under-reported. There are quite a few kids that are thriving, especially introverted students or students that maybe didn't quite do well at school in that classical classroom setting. As a teacher, it is exciting to see that there are kids thriving in it.
Rachel: This is Rachel from Louisville, Kentucky. My biggest struggle with remote learning is that it's all done through a Chromebook that is managed by the school system. I can't control what websites he's allowed to go to. I have discovered that even though it looks like he's in class on a separate tab, he's going to other websites, some of which he really shouldn't be going to, and listening to other things and doing other things instead of doing his work.
Tanzina Vega: We also heard from some teachers.
Jenna: My name's Jenna. I teach at a private preschool in Washington State. We are currently online using a combination of Zoom meetings and prepared learning packets that the families take home every week. My biggest challenge is not being able to give my students the kind of hands-on experience that is developmentally appropriate for preschoolers. Most parents don't have the number of school supplies, of art supplies that we have on hand. Frequently, they don't choose to let their children have the kind of messy exploration that we can have in the classroom. They also don't get the opportunity to have those explorations with their peers, which is really important for learning at the preschool stage.
Tanzina Vega: Keep sharing your thoughts with us. Remember, you can always send us a voice memo at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also give us a call at 877-869-8253, that's 877-8-MY-TAKE.
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