CHARLES COUNTY, Md. — For some students in our area, virtual learning means no learning. School districts are seeing a drop in attendance because many kids are not logging into their virtual classrooms.
"It was very emotional for me,” parent Melissa Swann said. “There were times when I would leave here and break down crying.”
Swann and her son Ryan, live in a rural part of Charles County, Maryland with very little Internet connectivity. The fourth grader wasn't able to log into his virtual classes. He wasn't getting his education.
“I'm just emotionally drained because I feel like I'm not doing what I can do and I'm failing my child,” Melissa Swann said. “I'm failing his future.”
The school district tried to work with the Swanns by giving them tablets, laptops, hot spots, but still, Ryan Swann couldn’t do anything.
“I don't want to do it anymore,” he said. “It gets me very mad.”
The family is not alone, according to Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) Director of Student Services Kathy Kiessling.
WUSA9 asked her if grades are suffering because these children are not logging on.
“Yes, they did and that's an obvious concern,” she said. “We've had attendance issues, but never in the volume that we've had since COVID.”
When schools first turned to remote learning, CCPS had over 1,700 students who were disconnected or unable to access classes.
But this isn't just a rural county problem. WUSA9's investigation showed students in suburban and urban districts are also "missing," because they’re not logging into their virtual classes during the pandemic.
DCPS said 7,322 students have been referred to student support teams because of unexcused absences.
In Montgomery County, 681 students hadn't logged in at all by the eighth week of the school year.
Neal Bankenstein is a pupil personnel worker, or PPW, for Charles County. It's his job to find these missing students and figure out why they aren't in their classes.
“The hopelessness wasn't just not being able to connect them, but also a fear of what is going on for those 1,700 kids,” he said.
COVID changed the way Baneknstein and Kiessling said they do their jobs. Now, there are a lot more phone calls, text messages and emails to parents. When they can't get in touch, they have to wear PPE to knock on doors.
The biggest challenges they've heard are from parents needing to work, so they can't supervise their kids' learning at home, and others simply don't have internet.
“It's very difficult to have an expectation of 'you need to make sure your child is logged in, signed on, completing their classwork,'” Neal said. “So, anytime we do call or make these contacts, that's what we first start with is 'we understand that this is not normal.'”
The IT department also had to work to get families the right equipment. CCPS held sessions to help parents who didn't know how to log on, especially those in the county's international population. They created a Spanish hotline specifically for these families.
“The parents can call in at any time during the week,” Bilingual Family and Community Outreach Facilitator Pilar Lepe said. “If they get up in the morning, the children have difficulty connecting, something is not working right, they can call and we have a staff member who goes step-by-step with them until they are able to connect.”
Educators have created internet cafes at four schools in the county.
Charles County internet cafes
“The idea behind them was to open those up because we realized there would be connectivity in the schools and invite the students to come in and use that," Kiessling said. "Still virtual learning, but they would at least have the ability to have a place to come."
CCPS is even bussing some students to these cafes. Melissa Swann was one of the parents who got a call about this effort.
“He's missed from August 'til December," Melissa Swann said. "I work 12-8. I have nobody to take him to the internet café daily, so he was basically failing.”
Now, Charles County has gotten the numbers down to around 330 students who are still disconnected, compared to the original 1,700. That number changes daily as they work to get more students in class.
For Ryan Swann and his mom, the future looks a bit brighter.
“I actually get to stay in school,” he said.
“It makes me feel like I'm doing everything I can,” Melissa Swann added. “It makes me feel better not only as a mother, a parent, a provider for him. It makes me feel so much better to know that he's happy.”
Baneknstein is now preparing himself for a flood of issues when kids do come back for in-person learning. He feels they need to be ready to deal with mental health concerns, learning gaps and any of the other consequences of being a kid trying to learn during a pandemic.
WUSA9 reached out to many of the school districts in our area to see how they're handling missing students during the pandemic. Here's what they said.
DC PUBLIC SCHOOLS
This school year, DCPS said they've seen a slight improvement of in-seat student attendance across the district. Daily student in-seat attendance during learning at home is averaging 91%.
How many students have missed three days of school?
DCPS: 22,878 students have accrued three days of excused or unexcused absences this school year. Regardless if a student has withdrawn from DCPS or changed schools, three absences means staff will work diligently to provide each of these students a wellness check.
How many students have hit the 5 days of unexcused absences so far this year?
DCPS: 7,322 students have accrued five days of unexcused absences this school year. The SST referral process will be put in motion at this point even if a student has since withdrawn or changed schools.
How many families have had to have those SST meetings? How do these numbers compare to years past?
DCPS: 4,657 students, or 64% of those who meet that truancy intervention threshold, qualify for SST meetings. Last year to date, 6,986 students qualified for an SST meeting, and 3,709 had one (53%).
MONTGOMERY COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS
The board talked about this very issue at a recent meeting. Here's what they said.
WUSA9 also interviewed officials from Montgomery County about their efforts to find students.
ARLINGTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS
APS noted a drop in enrollment with students either opting for homeschooling or to attend in-person school at private or parochial schools.
"We have seen 1,125 students fewer than last year’s official Sept. 30 count of 28,020 (4.01% decrease). On November 17, the superintendent reported that 99.18% of students participated in synchronous learning activities through Teams for an average of four hours through the day during the previous week and 95% of APS student devices actively engaged with applications such as Teams, Canvas and SeeSaw. Teachers and administrators provide targeted support to students who are struggling to connect or may not be in virtual class for whatever reason."
LOUDOUN COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS
"At the start of the school year, 2,772 students who had previously registered were withdrawn from LCPS. Of these,156 students reported dropping out of school. The others moved out of the county, enrolled in a private school, charter school or accredited online program. For students who have resumed school in the hybrid model, attendance is taken for the two days they are in school.
LCPS has attendance expectations and protocols in effect for distance learning and we follow up with families and students by way of ongoing monitoring and support provided through collaboration among teachers, parent liaisons and members of the United Mental Health Team (counselors, social workers, student assistance specialists, principals, assistant principals and attendance officers). According to our district profile, which pulls data from our data warehouse, our attendance rate is 97.94%."
PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY SCHOOLS
"Enrollment is down in school divisions across the country, more than likely due to the pandemic. Enrollment means someone actually registers and enrolls for school, and the attendance is the actual attendance to class, either virtually or in person, of a student who has been enrolled. Therefore, if someone isn’t enrolled, we are not expecting their attendance in class.
Our lowest drop in enrollment is at the kindergarten level. Therefore, parents are choosing to homeschool or possibly put children in private kindergarten until the pandemic is over.
As far as attendance is concerned, we are not seeing any significant issues with attendance. Teachers, counselors and other staff members do reach out to students and/or their parents of students who are enrolled who are not regularly attending class. This is a practice we followed pre-COVID, as well."