By mid-March 2020, most American schools shut their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, over a year later, schools across the country are open partially or fully for in-person instruction. However, many states have reported a significant decline in the number of students enrolled in public school last year. For approximately 3 million of the most vulnerable students in the country, March 2020 might have been the last time they received virtual or in-person instruction.
Many students seem to have “gone missing” or have disengaged completely, not showing up for online or in-person instruction, their whereabouts unknown by school officials. Additionally, this “missing” student population includes a high proportion of students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, children in foster care and those who are experiencing homelessness. The reasons why students are not attending school are complex. Ongoing issues around access to technology and the digital divide remain an issue for many students; however, for these more vulnerable populations of missing students, challenges of educational engagement often go beyond needing a laptop or Wi-Fi hotspot.
These are groups who also typically require additional educational resources and social services—services these students are not able to access for support without fully participating in school. For local and state education agencies, the problem of missing students generates concerns about student well-being as well as issues of sufficient funding that can limit the extent to which schools can get these kids back in school and back on track.
The long-term consequences of this problem are difficult to estimate. However, research shows much shorter disruptions to learning can have long-term consequences on students’ knowledge, skills, and achievement. Therefore, with months of missed opportunities for learning, many of the currently missing students could experience significant setbacks when they do return to school. Additionally, students who were already at an educational disadvantage may lag even further behind their peers who had access to education during the pandemic.
In November 2020, more than 12,000 students were reported as chronically absent in the state of New Mexico. By January 2021, some of the more concerning areas included Albuquerque, where administrators reported that more than 2,000 students were referred to New Mexico Engaged, a non-profit that works to track down missing or disengaged students. Aztec Municipal School District reported 48 percent of the student population as chronically absent, Tularosa Municipal Schools reported 32 percent, and Santa Fe reported 29 percent. Additionally, the New Mexico Public Education Department reported 5,900 students as unaccounted for. It is possible some of these students moved and never notified their school districts, but it is also possible they are part of New Mexico’s most vulnerable populations: the homeless or children who live in shelters. Given the additional stressors many of these students and families faced, districts in New Mexico made concerted efforts to locate them.
The methods for finding missing students in New Mexico varied—involving law enforcement and the New Mexico Children, Youth & Families Department; calls to parents; and administrators going door to door looking for students. A cross-agency team has been whittling the list since November 2020 by working with districts, cross-referencing databases, making phone calls, and making COVID-safe home visits. In the first months of the effort, the list dropped by thousands each month.
As of March 2021, the New Mexico Public Education Department and its partners are searching for the final and hardest-to-reach students in order to determine that all New Mexico students were safe and receiving education services despite the pandemic. About 2,500 names remained on the list once numbering over 12,000, and were therefore feared to be outside the educational system. Of the remaining unaccounted-for students, 100 were believed to be homeless, a figure calculated by comparing the unaccounted-for list to a list of students who were in a federal program for homeless students last spring.
Partner with Community Organizations | In continuing the search for missing students, ongoing coordination and collaboration across community-based organizations will be key. Local and state education agencies need to develop strategic plans for working with community institutions to identify where students are and what they need, as successfully demonstrated by New Mexico Engaged. These partner organizations should include state social service agencies but could also include churches, shelters, food pantries, provider agencies—all agencies outside of the school building that may have information on students’ whereabouts. Social media is also a tool that districts can utilize to locate students. As evidenced by efforts in New Mexico, reaching out to students or their friends and family is an innovative way to reconnect with disengaged students.
Evaluate School Funding Opportunities | Current school funding allocation often relies heavily on student enrollment numbers. As enrollment has and continues to fluctuate, state and federal government leaders need to evaluate current funding formulas to accommodate schools with high numbers of missing students. Providing guidance and opportunities to allocate funding for schools and other social services differently will be important for schools in supporting the current efforts to reengage students and to maintain resources for students. Additionally, safe returns to school, intensive educational and child welfare interventions, and coordination between schools, districts, and social service agencies in the current moment all require additional funds to implement effectively.
Revamp Attendance Policies | School districts and states should consider revisiting current attendance policies. It will be important to develop new approaches to attendance as the school year begins so students and schools are not punished for low or fluctuating enrollment numbers. Collecting and reporting disaggregated attendance data in real time will help districts internally identify individual students who went missing between spring and fall. Schools, districts, and communities should also develop and implement attendance intervention strategies that start with an informed understanding of students’ unmet needs. It would be best to avoid punitive approaches that exacerbate students’ needs as they transition into being fully engaged in school again.
Address Learning & Service Loss | As missing students shift back into their in-person or virtual learning environment, social service agencies and community-based organizations should work with local and state education agencies to develop coherent and integrated plans that meet the unmet needs of each community’s most vulnerable children. Children and families in crisis often receive uncoordinated help from many sources, at times leading to gaps in services. The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has been no different. It will be imperative that reengaged students receive increased social supports and ongoing wellbeing checks to ensure that they remain engaged and continue their education.