Missing Wake County students during COVID-19: What are schools doing to find them?

Wake County News

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — As school districts focused on virtual learning in the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented number of students have gone missing, meaning they haven’t been showing up for class.

One estimate, earlier this school year, put the number of missing students at nearly 15,000 across the state.

Wake County Schools showed CBS 17 what it’s doing to track down what they call “disengaged students.”

Stacy Alston, the principal of East Wake High School prides himself on making connections with his students. He was born and raised in this community.

“When you go to the grocery store, you see a student’s cousin who you know you’ve been looking for, hey, you ask about the student,” Alston said.

There are 1,400 students to keep track of at East Wake High School.

“It is, with the virtual academy and students returning face to face, we roughly have about 50 percent of our students that are face to face,” Alston explained.

He said with many parents still jobless, the biggest challenge is economic.

“A lot of students are now having to supplement income from the home, and because they’re having to supplement income from the home, they’re having to work, and we’re fighting school versus work,” Alston said.

How do school officials identify students who aren’t coming to class? If they don’t show up three days in a row, teachers at East Wake will touch base with the student’s guidance counselor.

Phone calls then will follow and possibly a home visit.

“A lot of times when we go out for the home visits, you can tell if no one has been at the house for a while,” Alston said.

They could have moved to a private school, another district, or out of the state.

Wake County Public School System officials said they couldn’t provide any specific numbers. The state said it won’t know how many students are not in class until the end of the school year.

Individual schools in Wake County are holding monthly attendance meetings.

Any more than 20 unexcused absences this school year lands a student on the list. It helps officials identify students that may need additional attention and resources.

“It’s caused us to have to be very creative and very agile, to be able to come up with a new way to find students,” said Michael Pesce, the director of social work for Wake County schools.

To help, the district has hired seven community liaisons, former social workers, to find the disengaged students.

Annette Thornhill is one of them. She said her first plan of attack is to listen — and she said she’s heard it all.

“The work is too hard, they don’t like the computers, it’s too difficult. Or it may be the internet is in and out,” Thornhill said.

Since October, Thornhill has been assigned 156 students. She makes about four home visits a day, documenting all of it, and then follows up.

“We’re another layer of support where the schools are just inundated with numbers, like shear number of students in need and so we’re the extra support,” Thornhill said.

Under state law, children ages 7 to 16 must attend school. More than 10 unexcused absences are supposed to lead to a meeting between the principal and parent.

If things don’t change after that, the case can trigger a truancy complaint.

Wake County Schools only reported two cases this school year. CBS 17 asked the district if their policy changed during the pandemic, officials said no and it’s up to individual schools to track attendance.

CBS 17 asked Thornhill if there’s something more the district needs to do.

“I really don’t know what else could be done,” she explained.

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