3 views on the best ways to track down missing students post-COVID

A large proportion of the "missing" are children of color, students with disabilities and English-language learners, advocate says
By: | December 7, 2021
Petersburg City Public Schools' WAVE bus visits apartment complexes, housing authorities, and churches, among other locations, to spread messages about the importance of attendance.Petersburg City Public Schools' WAVE bus visits apartment complexes, housing authorities, and churches, among other locations, to spread messages about the importance of attendance.

Even though 300-plus Petersburg City Public Schools students didn’t show up for class last school year, the Virginia district’s enrollment is now higher than it was in 2019.

That’s because district leaders took action in summer 2021 as they, along with administrators across the country, faced the challenge of finding the many students who dropped out of contact during the COVID remote learning shift.

The district used its ESSER funds to hire a residency compliance specialist who began searching for students on July 1. As a result, enrollment rose to 4,244 in fall 2021 from 4,074 in 2019, Superintendent Maria Pitre-Martin says. “We are not having issues retaining students, but we are having issues with students attending school regularly,” Pitre-Martin says. “If parents see any COVID-19 like symptoms, they are keeping their young people at home for days at a time.”

The district reaches out to absent students through home visits by student support specialists. Its WAVE bus visits apartment complexes, housing authorities, and churches, among other locations, to spread messages about the importance of attendance. The retrofitted school bus has been transformed into a student and family support resource center and serves as a mobile library, career center, information hub, and internet cafe. “Our campaign slogan is ‘Two Days is Two Much’—meaning that missing two days per month will cause a student to be chronically absent,” Pitre-Martin says.

The residency compliance specialist steps in when home visits are not successful in locating a student. The specialist works with the city’s social services and police departments in completing wellness checks.

Nationwide,  public pre-K through 12 enrollment fell by more than 1.3 million students between 2018-19 and 2020-21, a decline of 2.7%, according to Bellwether Education’s “Missing in the Margins 2021” report. The drops were highest in kindergarten, where enrollment declined by more than 9% and fell by over 20% in some districts and schools. Decreases were also more severe in fully remote districts, which tended to serve lower-income neighborhoods, according to Bellwether Education.

Finding the most vulnerable students

The most concerning aspect of the problem is that a large proportion of the “missing” from online and in-person instruction are children of color, students with disabilities and English-language learners, says Javaid E. Siddiqi, president and CEO of The Hunt Institute, which works with elected on key issues in education.

One estimate found that 1.4 million homeless students have been under-identified during the pandemic and are not receiving the support services they are entitled to, the Hunt Institute “Missing & Disengaged Students” report found. education entitled to them by the McKinney-Vento Act.

School administrators will have to partner with other community organizations to track students down, including by granular methods such as going door-to-door and crowdsourcing social media to determine students’ whereabouts, Siddiqi says. He also recommends that administrators tap into the energy of volunteers from fall political campaigns to bolster grassroots community efforts to locate students. Schools could also use ESSER funds to hire retirees and college or high school students to help conduct searches.

“Truancy was an issue before the pandemic and most districts didn’t have real robust truancy offices,” Siddiqi says. “This is where districts can think differently because of this major, once-in-a-generation influx of dollars.”

School districts—and states—should also consider revising attendance policies so students—and schools—are not punished for low or fluctuating enrollment. Collecting and reporting disaggregated attendance data in real-time will help districts internally identify individuals who disappeared between spring and fall semesters. Schools should avoid punitive approaches that exacerbate students’ challenges as they try to return to school full-time.

When students do return, they will need integrated support from schools working in tandem with social service agencies and other community organizations. For instance, once-missing students would benefit from ongoing wellbeing checks as they return to class.

The full number of missing students in fall 2021 may not yet have been calculated as many states may still be gathering the data. And the problem is likely more severe in some states, such as California, compared to others, such as Connecticut, says Hedy N. Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that helps districts implement strategies to reduce chronic absences.

Early indications show that chronic absences may have doubled in California this school year even though the state has support districts in offering more remote learning options. Also, more students have been quarantined this school year—with varying degrees of access to instruction—because more students have returned to in-person instruction, Chang says.

“Absences at the beginning of the year are extremely concerning because that’s when students get the basic concepts that allow them to be successful in class for the remainder of the year,” she says. “It’s also the time when kids bond with other students and teachers.”

Another solution is for schools to focus on building strong relationships with students. This helps kids build a sense of belonging and hope that will keep them coming to school and engaged in learning, Chang says.

Some districts have used the “two-by-10” model in which educators and staff commit to connecting with individual students for two minutes per day, for 10 days in a row. In one district Chang has worked with, educators were using this time to help students figure out how to catch up on missed assignments and to connect them with peer mentors.

Like Siddiqi, she encourages administrators to use ESSER funds to expand and enhance attendance strategies. “If we don’t take the incredible increase in chronic absences, we’re going to have an even bigger enroll challenge,” she says. “Unfortunately, it can get worse.”