Students have been opting out of public schools in North Carolina since the pandemic. Now years after enrollment shifted across the state, new data shows thousands of students aren't reported enrolled in any type of school.
While many families ditched public schooling for private or homeschooling options, an Associated Press analysis of enrollment data found around 12,000 students across North Carolina are 'unaccounted' for. This means the absence of these 12,000 students could not be explained by changes in enrollment for homeschool, private charter schools or out-of-state transfers.
"We're using all kinds of creative and innovative strategies to locate these students but a lot of them we're still just having a hard time locating," explained Pamela Story, the social worker coordinator and homeless liaison for Cumberland County Schools.
She said her team is utilizing social media, emailing and calling parents, making home visits and even collaborating with local law enforcement and the state's Department of Social Services.
North Carolina public schools enrollment dropped by around 34,000 students between the 2019-20 and the 2021-22 school year, according to the AP analysis. During the same time, private and homeschool enrollment each increased by 11,000 students.
Story said her team is finding while some students are enrolling in different schools and forgetting to notify the district, some students just aren't going to school.
"Some are pregnant. Some have gotten married. Some have left the state, moved in with relatives," Story said. "Some have gone to work because the economy at this time has taken a nosedive. So many of them have also taken on caretaking responsibilities for their parents. Some of them are homeschooled. And some of them are just missing. And we are doing everything we can to relocate them even if they're out of state."
Locating students who stop attending schools is work that Story has been involved with for years but said, like so many things, the pandemic is making it worse. She also said the economy and lack of affordable housing is adding to the growing problem.
"We don't have enough housing here in Cumberland County; affordable housing. The economy, mental health, social-emotional needs and food insecurities. When you really get into it, it's not just all kids sitting at home watching TV on their iPads all day long. We have parents who are struggling grandparents, raising children," Story said.
The AP analysis found North Carolina had the fifth-highest number of unaccounted-for students. Across the country, it's estimated 230,000 students were unaccounted for across 21 states.
"It is not new. It is exacerbated during the pandemic though because we did the transition from out of the school building into remote learning. And so it was different when you can't actually physically make those contacts with families," explained Tamika Walker Kelly, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
To combat this in North Carolina, state lawmakers set aside $7.2 million for districts to locate missing students in 2021. As of last summer, a majority of districts had not spent their funds. Districts have September 2024 to spend the money.
Paul Koh, the assistant superintendent of Student Support Services at Wake County Public Schools, said these efforts and dollars are necessary to ensure students are safe.
"It's incumbent upon us to make sure that our families are safe and that our students are able to still go on their trajectory of growth towards hopefully life success. So I think that's the main reason because we care about students. That's our job as a public school district," Koh said.
Wake County Public Schools received nearly $500,000. In January, the district hired three counselors to focus on tracking down the estimated 900 'missing' students across the district. Already this year, the counselors have located 141 of the estimated 900 unaccounted-for students.
"The bulk of them are enrolled in other school systems, whether charter or a different district, but for the ones that are not enrolled, our social workers are actually working with the families to find out what is going on with them and figuring out what needs they have," Koh said.
He said without the funds to hire the three additional counselors, progress might be slower as other staff would have to take on the extra work.
Cumberland County Schools have also utilized their funds to hire additional social workers and counselors. This month the district also plans to restart its Truancy Mediation Council (TMC). It's a voluntary intervention for families whose students start missing extended periods of school. Schools make referrals to the council and staff steps in to try to understand what factors are preventing the family from getting the student to class.
"If there was no TMC, the only options are calling DSS and stretching those resources or sending them to court," explained Sanya Eller, a family court administrator who has worked with Story on TMC for years.
Some of the biggest successes the duo has had in the past is connecting families with resources in the community that they didn't even know existed. The intervention options was suspended during the pandemic but is beginning at the end of March. Already the duo said their list of cases for the next few months is maxed out.
"We just have to keep plugging on because if we can find one student, if we can get one kid back in school on a consistent basis...and I think it's most important for the younger children. Because if we can instill in them how important it is to stay, and that's something that they will take with him through high school and beyond hopefully," Eller said.
While districts dedicate time and resources to reconnecting with students, education advocates worry about how these efforts will survive once the pandemic funding runs out.
"What we continue to see is with that shortage of school counselors with their shortage of school social workers, we don't have the resources to follow up and continue to do those contacts," said Walker Kelly.
North Carolina's ratio of counselors to students is above the recommended ratio.
During the 2020-21 school year, North Carolina reported one counselor for every 326 students. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250:1. However, the latest data shows only two states meet that standard.
"We don't want any of our students to fall through the cracks and we don't want any families to go out without the necessary resources that they need in order to make sure that students get their academic needs met, but also their social-emotional health and wellness needs met," Walker Kelly said. "As we continue to do the work that's necessary to advocate for public schools, we continue to advocate for these resources on a sustainable basis."