The warning about Leon County public school students falling through the cracks because of COVID-19 started before classrooms reopened.
“There’s probably 2,000 (students) we haven’t heard from,” Superintendent Rocky Hanna told School Board members the week leading up to the first day of school.
The school district knew since students retreated home in March that COVID-19 would worsen existing problems in the system. Educators now must begin the work of solving them.
The week before classrooms reopened locally, district data indicated that roughly 2,700 public school students had not responded to school surveys about their learning intent for the fall semester — whether they’d come back to physical classrooms or continue their education remotely.
The data included local charter schools, public scholarship programs to assist students going to private schools, Leon virtual school and homeschool options. Subtracting these categories, the Leon County school district was missing somewhere from 700 to 1,000 students, according to district data.
As students and teachers head into the fourth week of classes, district officials are rounding up the most recent data to determine who is missing — and where these kids may be.
Who, where and why?
The first day of school came with typical first-day bumps and bruises. Glitches in Canvas, the district’s learning platform, and Zoom affected Digital Academy students district-wide. Principals emailed families saying remote students’ attendance would not be penalized for the first few days.
Teachers had planned to welcome roughly 14,600 students back to physical classrooms and 16,000 into virtual classrooms at more than 40 schools, according to the district’s family survey data.
First-day attendance rosters show that 89% of the district’s roughly 30,000 students were marked present Aug. 31. That translates to roughly 3,500 students officially unaccounted for on Aug. 31. But this doesn’t mean thousands of students have suddenly dropped out of school.
“I would say COVID-19 has exacerbated the numbers,” Assistant Superintendent Kathleen Rodgers said in a recent phone interview. “We have always had to deal with hundreds of kids who did not show up for the first day of school through the first 10 days of school.”
Rodgers is one of five assistant superintendents at the district and oversees equity and diversity, among a host of other responsibilities.
At the moment, her focus has been on two schools the Florida Department of Education has categorized as “differentiated accountability” schools: John G. Riley Elementary School and Bond Elementary School.
Both schools earned a “D” grade from the state education department in the 2018-19 school year and must improve their state scores. (State school grades were suspended in the 2019-2020 school year because of COVID-19.)
Between just those two schools, Rodgers and a team of roughly 16 other people are working to locate 64 students, she said: “We have put boots on the ground … knock on doors, find out what’s going on.”
What happens next
“What happens if we have kids who just don’t show up?” School Board member Alva Striplin said during the Sept. 8 board meeting, the first since schools reopened.
Hanna said Rodgers and a team of people would start going to people’s houses. He said he’d allocated additional resources to her department to aid her efforts.
Rodgers, in a recent phone conversation, said her team is made up of 12 social workers and about five people from her office. She anticipates some of the “unaccounted for” students likely belong to families who left during the pandemic and did not notify the district of their students’ disenrollment.
“This won’t be a ‘gotcha, we’ll turn you into (the Department of Children and Families),’ ” Hanna told the board. “These people will be knocking on doors and writing a help ticket.”
Rodgers said her team is doing much of the preliminary work now to analyze neighborhoods and form a methodology so they don’t end up driving across the district back and forth, she said.
“We are dealing with two different kinds of situations here,” she said. One is actually truant students enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools. The others is students in Digital Academies who want to learn but are having issues connecting online.
The solutions will be different depending on the case. Some families may need assistance in getting to school. Some families may need help logging into a computer classroom. “It’s quite a lift,” she said.
Meantime, the community could help the district locate students by calling Rodgers’ office phone line — (850) 487-7306 —with tips about kids not attending class, she said. “If there’s a kid out there who’s not engaged or experiencing some hardships, please reach out to us,” she said.
“This is not an ‘I got you.’ (We will be) knocking on a door, hands open, palms open, saying ‘How can I help you?’”
CD Davidson-Hiers is an education reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat. Phone: 850-631-0958; email: CDavidsonH@Tallahassee.com; Twitter: @DavidsonHiers.
Never miss a story: Subscribe to the Tallahassee Democrat.