A few weeks into his district’s distance learning program, high school English teacher James MacIndoe and his colleagues took an afternoon to telephone the families of every student they hadn’t yet heard from.
What they found was sobering: voicemail prompts, full mailboxes, wrong numbers, disconnections, busy signals.
“I called 12 sets of parents on Friday and I got to speak to one mom, and that was really frustrating,” said MacIndoe, who works in the Jefferson County, Colo., district. “I have some students I legitimately haven’t seen since March 13,” the last day of in-person classes.
“I don’t want anything bad to happen to my students, and I feel protective of them, and I want them to be fine,” he said. “And it’s distressing not to have any idea where they are and not to be able to get in touch with them.”
In the upheaval created by the coronavirus, school district administrators and teachers alike are struggling to answer some of the most basic questions about their students: Where are they? How do they go about finding them?
Are the students who aren’t participating in distance learning merely checked out—or are they in some kind of peril wrought by the pandemic?
There have long been gaps in the contact information districts maintain on students and their parents, particularly for vulnerable children, but never before has that information proved so critical on such a large scale. The cracks in the formal systems meant to protect children have become chasms. Some students have disappeared into them, and educators have limited resources to find out where these children and their families might be.
Plus, the informal check-ins that schools typically rely on—a teacher, coach, bus driver or cafeteria worker who would normally be alert to a child in distress—have been disrupted. There are just fewer eyes on children right now.
“We take for granted the hundreds of thousands of points of contact we have with students on a normal day,” said Chad E. Gestson, the superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School district in Arizona., which recently rolled out a robust plan to reach all of its students as it moves to distance learning. “In a virtual setting, the only way to get personal contact and connection with kids is to say to them: ‘We will contact you every day.’”
Keeping tabs on a dispersed student body is a daunting task for most school districts, its challenges only now becoming clear as districts have teed up their remote learning programs.
All over social media, teachers are sharing stories tinged with both frustration and fear for students who haven’t logged into learning platforms, participated in threaded discussions, completed an assignment, or returned texts and emails.
There’s little research explicitly on the state of district communications, primarily because they are usually multilayered—a combination of formal and informal calls home, parent-teacher conferences, home visits, emails, robocalls, and report cards, as well as the informal lines of sight that bus drivers, cafeteria staff, and coaches have on students.
But the fractured state of formal contact information has been rising as a subtext in a number of studies that have examined student absenteeism.
In a 2019 study, for example, three graduate research assistants at Georgia State University used a random-assignment study in four districts to see whether personalized “nudges” sent by email and text messages through districts’ communications systems to parents could improve attendance among students at risk of chronic absenteeism.
The study’s good news finding: The nudges did help. The bad news? Only 55 percent of grade K-8 students’ parents in the study, and 49 percent of grade 9-12 students’ parents, actually had a valid email or number where they could receive texts, and those students with the most absences tended to have parents who were the hardest to reach.
Some student groups are particularly vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis, most notably the nation’s approximately 1.5 million students identified as homeless.
Take a situation that Sherrice Roness, the homeless liaison for the Bismarck, N.D., school system, recently encountered.
A single father struggling with chronic homelessness moved into the district, right when the system was shifting to remote learning. He tried to pick up two Chromebooks for his children that the district was offering for home use. The school staff said that he wasn’t registered, and that he should come back.
The registration snafu has now been resolved on the district’s side, Roness said, but the family is now unreachable. The district has tried last known addresses and phone numbers for the family without success. Even “do you need any help” texts to the phone numbers on record have gone unanswered so far.
“With my job, I think, sometimes you should have to have a [private investigator’s] license,” Roness said.
A Growing Population
The 1.5 million homeless students in 2017-18 marked a record, data from earlier this year show, and could grow larger as unemployment rises and the economy stumbles.
Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national advocacy organization for homeless youth, said that the students falling out of contact with trusted adults is one of the biggest issues her organization is facing now.
And the concern is not just with the families who are already known to schools.
“We have students who are newly becoming homeless,” Duffield said. “They’re not going to be on anybody’s list.” And these families are often worried that involvement with the authorities will mean losing their children to “the system.”
“Any communication coming from a school district needs to have information about homelessness or housing in it. People could be housed one week and the next week, they’ve lost their housing,” Duffield said.
Even for students who are not facing homelessness, new problems have cropped up because the virus has effectively made it much more difficult to engage in other forms of communication. There are no notes to send home in backpacks. Counselors and truancy officers can’t go about their jobs in traditional ways. And even committed teachers say they don’t always know what steps to take now in the face of absenteeism.
“Normally if a kid racks up a few absences I know what to do in that case—I need to document it with a counselor, and reach out to a family, and ultimately I know it’s highly likely the student will come back at some point. I can do all that and be a good professional and employee and lay the groundwork for the intervention,” said MacIndoe, the Colorado teacher. “What makes this so much worse and different is, I just don’t have that. I don’t know when I’m going to see those kids again.”
It’s a challenge that rings true for those who have actually experienced instability. From 5th grade through high school, Kara Friese and her family bounced between sleeping in motels, rented basements, and their car. Now 22, she graduated from the State University of New York at Fredonia and is pursuing a master’s degree in counseling at Columbia University.
She has sympathy for school officials who are trying to track children who have disappeared from educators’ sights since schools closed.
“It just breaks my heart for those teachers; it makes me feel like they were placed in a role they were never trained for. To me, it feels so unfair that a person with a master’s degree in education is now trying to be a social worker or a psychologist,” she said.
Caring teachers did support Friese through her time in school, so that connection was extremely important, she said.
“I don’t want to say it’s on the teachers, but I do think the teachers [are the ones who] connect to certain students in the best way,” Friese said.
‘Every Student, Every Day’
Faced with limited information, some districts have tried to tap other sources, including their free and reduced-price meal programs, which serve low-income families who are probably more likely to move frequently or have challenges accessing the internet. But even that poses multiple obstacles for administrators.
Children whose families receive food stamps are directly certified for school meal programs, which means those families don’t need to fill out annual applications for school meals. Beyond that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s privacy rules are quite strict, raising some complicated legal issues for districts about the sharing of information across divisions.
Districts’ food-service employees can potentially share child-eligibility information with colleagues to help provide some services, like those funded through federal Title I aid, for example. But generally, the data they can release doesn’t include parent contact information, according to guidance put out by the USDA.
In the end, school administrators said, nothing can really replace ongoing efforts to build relationships with each student before an emergency.
Every staff member in Cleveland County, N.C., has been involved with the effort to connect with and support families, said Nellie Aspel, the director of exceptional children for Cleveland County schools in North Carolina. In addition to working with special education, Aspel also oversees a major social-emotional support program in the district.
Some of the students who are still in touch with school staff are already exhibiting a lot of stress, Aspel said—sharing writing, for example, that says they’re afraid of dying from the coronavirus, or that their parents are fighting with one another.
“This is where relationships are so important,” she said. “If they had a good relationship with one person before school let out…they view the school as some place that will help them.”
Cleveland County administrators are also recognizing that the process of keeping track of students is ongoing. Families are reachable one week and difficult to find the next. Families are running out of cellphone minutes and are unable to buy more. Children are sent to live with relatives in other communities or other states.
The Phoenix Union district, meanwhile, is pioneering a new program that equips staff and teachers with tools for building those relationships as they track down each student.
The district, which serves more than 27,000 high school students coming from 13 K-8 districts in the area, had already created a new student and family services division out of a sense that rising levels of poverty, mental-health needs, and rates of suicide ideation among adolescents were demanding a coordinated approach. The coronavirus has proved to be its first test.
As the specter of the pandemic grew, Gestson, the superintendent, and his team devised a case management system called Every Student, Every Day. Each student’s advisory teacher, coupled with one other employee in the district—a counselor, principal, paraprofessional, or central office staffer—are together responsible for checking in by phone each day with a “caseload” of about 20-30 students.
“If this was already a generation in crisis, how do we know they are going to be well during the shutdown? Because most abuse and neglect in our nation happens at home, and now we are sending kids home for four months, essentially,” said Gestson, explaining the theory of action behind the program. “The only way we can guarantee our kids are well is if we’re in touch with them every day.
“The idea isn’t just about academics; it’s about connection every day, so that kids know they’re loved,” Gestson said. “We talk about love all the time.”
All participating teachers and staff are supplied with scripts for initial conversations with parents, and then with students. For example, when talking with students, the scripts begin with an affirmation telling them they’re missed, and then contain prompts about how to inquire about supports they might need to stay engaged in school.
Every time they reach a student, the educator will log notes of the call in a secure database—for example, if a student is having problems connecting to online learning or if a family member lost a job. On the other side, counselors, principals, and case managers will use the notes to connect the families to resources.
For those students it can’t initially reach, Phoenix Union will begin using emergency contacts to try to track down families, and it will also send some to conduct home visits using appropriate social-distancing techniques.
“We’ve had plenty of disconnected numbers and wrong numbers, but this is going to help us solve that problem,” Gestson said.
Although only about week into the initiative, some patterns are already emerging. Many families are already in food crises thanks to soaring unemployment rates; others are struggling with internet connectivity.
It’s difficult work, but also a fundamental duty, the superintendent says.
“People [in the district] ask, ‘What if we can never make contact?’ And we tell them, one phone call can save a life,” Gestson said. “This is not just about academic preparedness and attendance, it’s about lives. It’s not just changing lives, but in some cases, about saving lives.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2020 edition of Education Week as Students Are Going Missing in Shift to Remote Learning