America’s Missing Student Crisis: School Systems Struggle to Locate Thousands of Children Who Vanished During Pandemic

With the public school enrollment rate down, experts believe we're in the middle of a missing student crisis. Photo by bantersnaps on Unsplash.

With the public school enrollment rate down, experts believe we’re in the middle of a missing student crisis. Photo by bantersnaps on Unsplash.

School is back in session, but not for all…

It’s been over a year since American public schools closed their doors to protect against the spreading of the coronavirus.  Now, school is back in session with varying degrees of in-person and virtual learning, but that doesn’t mean that every student who left the classroom last March came back when the bell rang.  In fact, researchers associated with Bellwether Education Partners have estimated that for “approximately 3 million” students, “March [of 2020] might have been the last time they experienced any formal education— virtual or in-person.”  Such an astronomical figure puts us in an unprecedented missing student crisis.

It is no secret that for many children in our country, school attendance functions as a respite from some of the challenges associated with extremely difficult home lives.  Public schools not only provide education for our youth, but they also offer protection from household environments of abuse, neglect, and inconsistent or nonexistent access to food, clean water, basic medical care, electricity, and other such essentials.  Furthermore, children without role models or prosocial circles in the home will often find them in the classroom.  The interactions they have with their teachers, mentors, coaches, and friends can be immeasurable boons to lonely or destructive behavioral patterns learned and reinforced outside of school.

Hailly T. N. Korman of Bellwether Education Partners told the Washington Post: “It’s been true for generations… that every one of society’s unmet needs of children shows up at the classroom door.”  Since March of last year, that door has largely been closed.

Fallen Through the Cracks

The staggering multi-million figure comes from compiling individual state enrollment reports across the country.  Michigan reported that, as of last fall, 53,000 fewer students enrolled than in 2019, and out of them, 13,000 simply could not be accounted for, having “fallen off-grid” completely.  North Carolina reported over 10,000 could not be located.  New Mexico reported 12,000.  And so forth.

With awareness of the missing student crisis on the rise, now begins the slow and arduous process of finding each child that school systems can no longer account for.  “Every child is important,” said Superintendent Michael Rice of Michigan, “to lose even one is too many.”

So disturbing is the enrollment decline that many states have hired “family liaisons” to track down missing students one by one.  These liaisons make house visits, sometimes accompanied by local police or social service agents, with the hope of reestablishing connections with the missing children and their families and helping them break down their barriers to learning.  This could mean anything from providing pupils with internet access and virtual learning devices to negotiating alternative transportation, or even discussing options regarding night or summer classes to accommodate those students who have taken up jobs to make ends meet.  It’s also the duty of the liaisons to account for the safety of the child and see if additional services or interventions are needed to ensure that they’re in a state to learn and be re-enrolled.

However, even with these liaisons doing difficult door-to-door work, reestablishing connections with students and their families is sometimes impossible.  The potential for the effectiveness of liaisons in the fight against the missing student crisis is founded on the accuracy of reports made prior to the pandemic— things like on-file phone numbers, email addresses, or up-to-date permanent addresses.  Troublingly, it’s not uncommon for a liaison to arrive at a home and discover that it’s been abandoned.  In these cases, questions arise as to what more can be done.  Every circumstance is unremittingly time-sensitive and state interventions, in many instances, come far too late.  But to see the end of the crisis, the effort must go on all the same.

Of a Future Mind

With the missing student crisis at a critical point, experts continue to speculate on the long-term effects of enrollment regression, assuredly compounded by the widespread academic disengagement that the nation experienced while virtual learning was the only option for students in public school. CEO Mike Magee of Chiefs for Change claimed that “we are going to have a whole generation of kids who are not well enough prepared for college and careers,” and that “mental, social, and emotional well-being issues” will even further saturate the global psyche as a result.

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About Cristin Dickey

Born in Maryland, raised in Texas, and educated in Utah, Cristin is a purveyor of stories from all widths and walks of life.  With a background in filmmaking and a staunch passion for literature, she aspires to give digital spaces a uniquely human touch.

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