Teachers and social workers search for students who are 'missing' in the pandemic

Schools are seeing a drop in virtual attendance as the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect daily life in the US. CNN's Bianna Golodryga reports.

Posted: Oct 19, 2020 7:21 PM
Updated: Oct 19, 2020 7:21 PM

In California's Robla School District, the littlest of the 2,000 students are in pre-K, then there are the kindergartners up to sixth graders. On any given day, up to 200 of them are missing from the school's virtual lessons.

First, the teachers reach out, calling and sending messages. Then school principals try to make contact -- calling again, sometimes seeing if there is a brother or sister in a different class to let them know what's going on.

And if all that fails to reach the children and their parents, teams of social workers take up the case, to see what can be done to get students back to class, even virtually, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"We have some families that are having a difficult time with life in general right now," Elisa Olmo told CNN recently as she set out to try to find missing students in Robla, a district in Sacramento, California.

"They're losing their jobs, they're maybe losing their house. And so school gets put on the back burner."

Robla School District Superintendent Ruben Reyes said he was very concerned about the 10% of students who were regularly missing class. The district has done what it can to get devices and Wi-Fi access to families who need them and is now focused on its "student find" program to make sure children are making it to school. He said 20% of his students have no permanent home and 90% live under the federal poverty limit.

"Very often ... we need to physically go out to the home that we have on record, the address, and see if we can reach the family in that way," he said.

"There've been some very interesting stories. Families who were just gone -- the instability of poverty is a big part of this -- so they were there, and now they're not."

Other times, it's an easier remedy like a lost computer cord that can be replaced. And sometimes children have been found left unsupervised and referrals may need to be made to social service agencies.

"It's not about getting anybody in trouble or catching anybody doing anything bad," Reyes stressed. "It's really about really trying to provide whatever that family needs to help their child to be successful."

Sudden drops in enrollment

School districts across the US are seeing plummets in the numbers of children enrolled for classes in the pandemic.

Chicago Public Schools have nearly 15,000 fewer students than this time last year, and Dallas was short of more than 13,000 students, CNN affiliate KTVT reported. It's a similar story across the country as many schools offer virtual-only instruction. Large drops have been seen in pre-K enrollment, Chicago, Dallas and others say, but they do not account for nearly all the missing students.

When students do enroll, schools still see absences and declines in online participation from middle and upper-class areas, where families may have opted for group pods, homeschooling or moving children to private schools. But challenges are magnified in lower-income districts like Robla.

The concern among educators like Robla's superintendent is not just for the immediate, but for the future. Studies show chronic absenteeism can lead to third graders unable to master reading and ninth graders dropping out of school altogether, according to Attendance Works, a non-profit advocacy and research group.

Laurie Butler-Echandia, who was out looking for missing students in Sacramento with Olmo, said the most challenging days were when she seemed to get nowhere.

"It's when the families aren't there. That's the hardest, which happens quite a bit," she said.

This day, she and Olmo did connect with a single father and walked him through how to help get his 11-year-old daughter online.

Outcomes like that buoy Superintendent Reyes: "Those are the heartening stories that I hear from my staff -- we visited this family, and now this child is coming to school."

And with that student back online, the team moves on. "We cannot let even one child slip through the cracks," Reyes said. "That's a lofty thing to say, but that has to be our goal."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 324537

Reported Deaths: 5594
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion44186858
Lake28094462
Allen18660301
Elkhart17663230
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Hamilton13612170
Vanderburgh10028121
Tippecanoe896729
Porter855386
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Vigo625889
Monroe550450
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Howard364177
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Marshall311846
Cass303931
Grant287150
Hancock272957
Noble264946
Henry256437
Boone255054
Dubois245631
Dearborn228231
Jackson226334
Morgan221243
Gibson194926
Knox193021
Shelby192656
Clinton185421
DeKalb183932
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Washington8127
Franklin73427
Carroll71913
Orange70028
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Parke6026
Newton57812
Rush5708
Blackford56612
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Pulaski41815
Martin3705
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Brown3574
Crawford3081
Union2782
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Ohio2387
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Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 399808

Reported Deaths: 6346
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin52652672
Cuyahoga39132746
Hamilton31491372
Montgomery21355242
Butler15768149
Lucas15301420
Summit14667330
Stark9780209
Warren878777
Mahoning7985301
Lake752566
Lorain7149106
Clermont622953
Delaware597337
Licking589977
Trumbull5867148
Fairfield576464
Greene559568
Clark5438129
Allen518389
Medina496557
Marion489359
Wood4861108
Miami456268
Pickaway410548
Portage385574
Columbiana376599
Tuscarawas360567
Richland349639
Wayne340894
Mercer299248
Muskingum262510
Hancock257240
Ross251259
Darke246160
Auglaize243935
Erie240868
Ashtabula240454
Putnam234549
Geauga227051
Union20838
Scioto204316
Lawrence201139
Shelby199917
Athens19984
Seneca192919
Belmont176729
Madison172019
Sandusky166429
Huron163022
Preble162521
Defiance149923
Holmes146939
Knox139719
Logan139018
Jefferson138113
Fulton135826
Crawford134417
Washington133427
Ottawa128830
Ashland117328
Williams11479
Clinton113115
Highland108118
Brown10755
Hardin107019
Henry105423
Champaign10535
Jackson102012
Van Wert99918
Fayette97317
Guernsey96814
Morrow9682
Coshocton91015
Perry86613
Adams83813
Gallia81615
Pike7921
Wyandot76118
Paulding70012
Hocking68516
Noble65124
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Meigs41712
Monroe34921
Morgan2925
Harrison2433
Vinton2326
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