Will 2020s missing students find their way back to classrooms?

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There has been much written about the students who were, through no fault of their own, unable to participate in online learning when schools across the country went fully remote in March of 2020. 

Issues of broadband access and connectivity, as well as access to digital devices, were tangible problems that districts and school leaders could work to solve. As a result of creative solutions like making school buses mobile hotspots, or purchasing and distributing Chromebooks en masse, many students were able to continue their schooling. 

What is less discussed is that as many as 3 million students have disappeared since the beginning of the pandemic. These students have never shown up for an online class and never took advantage of any solutions provided by districts. Now, with school districts across the country gearing up to resume in-person learning, some educators are optimistic that these students will return. 

While I would like to think so as well, my experience as an educator suggests otherwise — if we don’t come up with thorough solutions, these students run the risk of being lost forever.

Prior to the pandemic, chronic absenteeism was already a problem with certain student populations. Solutions being deployed to reach these students were universal strategies such as emphasizing attendance goals and expectations, regular attendance tracking and developing personal connections with chronically absent students. With modifications, I believe these types of strategies can be effective in reaching the majority of missing students. 

In continuing the search, several tactics will need to be deployed simultaneously for schools to re-engage this population. State leaders need to communicate with districts and schools to understand the severity of the problem — similar to efforts New Mexico has taken. Districts can utilize social media to locate students by informing the community about the issue and asking for help, and by reaching out directly to students or their friends and families to try to connect. Ongoing coordination and collaboration with families and across community-based organizations is also key. 

Schools, districts and communities should develop and implement attendance intervention strategies that start with an informed understanding of what students are missing and what their unmet needs are. 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 needs of each community’s most vulnerable children. Finally, once students are re-engaged, it would be best to avoid punitive attendance policies that exacerbate students’ academic needs as they transition into being fully engaged in school again.

There are other students who may be harder still to reach — such as the homeless student population — and we must figure out ways to deploy individuals with the resources and skills to reach them. We are going to have to get creative to do so, utilizing members of the community in job functions likely to encounter kids in trouble. This may include social workers, homeless shelter staff, juvenile detention counselors and local law enforcement, to name a few. 

Some children may be in very difficult circumstances, with family members unable or unwilling to provide the necessary support. Before we activate this community army, we must have solutions ready to deploy, such as transportation, digital options and more, so that getting children back to school is as seamless as possible.

We face a generational tragedy if these missing students are not found. We must make every effort to find them, get them back to the classroom and provide them with the necessary support to thrive.

Dr. Javaid Siddiqi is president and CEO of The Hunt Institute. Twitter: @jsiddiqi7

Tags Education Education reform Educational practices Educational psychology Educational technology online learning Social justice educational leadership

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