Thousands of NC students still unaccounted for | How educators are trying to get them back to school

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BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Tuesday, August 29, 2023
NC educators continue efforts to get students back to school
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The COVID-19 pandemic drastically shifted where students went to school, and that continues to cause ripple effects across the state.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The COVID-19 pandemic drastically shifted where students went to school.

Tens of thousands of students left public schools and thousands of others seemingly vanished -- with their records not showing up as being enrolled in any type of recognized school.

These changes and the ongoing lingering impacts of the pandemic have left educators with a new set of challenges to reengage students.

"We have some students that are still struggling with just trying to get into the routine of coming to school," Kofi Hill, the lead social worker at Durham Public Schools, said.

Earlier this spring it was estimated that 12,000 North Carolina students were missing, according to an analysis from the Associated Press. These students were not associated with the enrollment of any school.

North Carolina lawmakers allocated $7 million for districts to track down the missing students.

"Usually it starts out as attendance concerns. It could be where students are dealing with mental health issues. Still students are, for different reasons, not feeling comfortable coming into the building," Hill said.

The latest data shows 41% of Durham students missed 10% or more of school for the 2021-22 school year, this is two times higher than the year before the pandemic and a trend that's happening statewide.

"Students disengage through various times of the year and it's always been a thing. I think COVID definitely brought a different light to it," Hill said.

She said increasing mental health challenges in students are contributing to the uptick in absent students.

It's a trend that education experts said can lead to drop-out and long-term impacts for younger students.

"Students will have more problems as they progress in school. As we know, the third-grade reading score is really not only a predictor of literacy, but it's also a predictor of the health and well-being of a young child. And so if children are not performing well, then we know those students need more attention and need more work, because, again, that is a predictor of academic and career and life success," said Lisa Finaldi, the community engagement leader with NC Early Childhood Foundation.

Finaldi and the NC Early Childhood Foundation are working directly with communities to help reengage students.

"The combination of all these things is probably one of the bigger problems that we have right now," she said. "It's not just academics. It is about the social skills and understanding what it takes to be in a classroom, to be part of a team, to self-regulate yourself; these are really important skills for kids to have," Finaldi said.

Where have the students gone?

Efforts by school districts to locate the missing students have discovered some have enrolled in different schools and forgot to notify the district.

Average daily membership data from the end of last school year showed nearly 13,000 more students attended North Carolina public schools than the year before. Still, around 64,000 fewer students are attending public schools than in 2018.

Meanwhile, nearly 30,000 more students are attending charter schools than in 2018. Attendance at charter schools has continued to steadily increase over the last decade. Private school data has similarly grown with more than 11,000 students attending private school last year than in 2021.

Students opting for homeschooling has decreased since reaching a peak in 2020 with 112,000 North Carolina students learning at home. Recent data showed there are still more students being homeschooled than before the pandemic but nearly 7,000 fewer attended homeschools last year than in 2021.

Engaging with students

Hill said increasing outreach is something social workers throughout Durham Public Schools are focused on doing. She also said it's up to staff districtwide to help make the classroom a place where students feel comfortable.

"We really want to make sure that -- I think everything starts with relationships and building relationships. You know, once you have some of that in place, the academic piece will all come together," Hill said.

Currently, North Carolina has an average ratio of more than 1,000 students for every social worker; this is four times more than the national recommendation.

Hill said these roles are critical in continuing to engage and connect with students.

"We would love to see one school social worker in every building. We still have quite a few social workers that are split between schools. Some serve three schools. So it's really hard to it makes it difficult to do those appropriate preventative measures," Hill said.

The North Carolina School Board recommended allocating $1 million to hire more social workers and nurses statewide.

Finaldi also said spreading education and focusing on prevention efforts is critical to tackling these trends.

"In the past, you don't show up at school there is delinquency and it goes in a very negative pattern and we want to get away from that," Finaldi said. "Families who maybe only have one car and a student has missed the bus, what are some of the tools we can use to not miss the bus?"