Are millions of students really missing school?

English-language learners, homeless and disabled students and children in foster care have had the most trouble accessing school
By: | October 22, 2020
While district leaders have prioritized connecting all students by providing devices and mobile hotspots, gaps in access and attendance remain, a Bellwether Education study says.(GettyImages/MoMorad)While district leaders have prioritized connecting all students by providing devices and mobile hotspots, gaps in access and attendance remain, a Bellwether Education study says. (GettyImages/MoMorad)

As many as 3 million of the country’s most marginalized students may not have returned to school—online or in-person—since the COVID closures in March, a new analysis suggests.

English-language learners, homeless and disabled students, and children in foster care are among the groups that have had the most trouble accessing school since the pandemic began, according to the “Missing in the Margins” report by Bellwether Education Partners.

The study cited examples from several large districts:

  • 16,000 fewer students enrolled in Miami-Dade County Public Schools this year.
  • Back-to-school family surveys found that 60% of students in Washington, D.C. lacked devices and 27% lacked high-speed internet access.
  • Kindergarten enrollment has dropped by 14% in Washington state.
  • 5%-20% of the English learners, students in foster care, students with disabilities, and homeless students in Los Angeles didn’t access any online learning from March through May.

While district leaders have prioritized connecting all students by providing devices and mobile hotspots, gaps in access and attendance remain, the study says.


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The students without adequate instructional technology disproportionately live in low-income households and are more likely to be Black, Latinx or Native American, the report finds.

Also, some students have had begin working to support their families during the COVID financial crisis while others are providing care for younger siblings at home.

Distancing learning has also made it far harder for educators to spot the warning signs when children are experiencing abuse at home or suffering mental health issues.

COVID’s disruptions have also made it harder for schools to communicate with homeless students and children in foster care, the report says.

The report notes that if even one in four students with disabilities, English learners, students in foster care, migrant students, and homeless students have missing school for months, that adds up to over 3 million students—equal to the entire school-aged population of Florida.


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The report recommends that district leaders do the following to increase access:

  • Districts and states must collect and report disaggregated attendance data in real-time to identify and follow up with students who have been absent during the spring and fall.
  • Schools, districts, and communities must develop attendance intervention strategies that focus on students’ unmet needs and avoid punitive approaches.
  • Social service agencies, telecommunications companies providing Wi-Fi access, and community-based organizations must work with districts and states to coordinate plans to support families.
  • State and federal government leaders need to provide guidance, funding, and resources for schools and other social services to support these plans.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.


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