‘We’re very concerned’: Schools seeing higher absences due to COVID-19 this year

VIDEO: ‘We’re very concerned’: Schools seeing higher absences due to COVID-19 this year

It’s a race for school social workers in Central Florida, trying to track down students who haven’t shown up for in-person classes on campus or logged onto virtual classes.

9 Investigates learned some students are not logging on for school online or attending classes in person. And the problem started last Spring, when parents grew frustrated trying to juggle online learning during the pandemic. And now, some parents still fear sending their children back to school or have given up on virtual learning.

“We’re very concerned, very concerned. We want all of our children to be fully engaged in learning,” said Dr. Kristine Landry, Lake County Schools Director of Student Services.

Content Continues Below

She and others in her role at other school districts told Investigative Reporter Daralene Jones they can’t remember a time when they’ve flagged so many students who weren’t attending classes, regularly.

“No, it’s higher this year, unfortunately. It’s almost like all hands-on deck,” Dr. Landry stated.  She manages 25 social workers who, this year, are doing more than checking on students, they’re trying to track them down. And Lake County is lucky because it has a larger number of social workers thanks to a half penny sales tax passed in recent years.

The story of trying to track down students is the same in Osceola County, where Jones spoke with Student Services Coordinator of Student Services, Elizabeth Lane. “With so many people out of a job and so many people looking to not being able to make their rent payments or find housing, education becomes sometimes something that, okay right now we’re going to worry about finding a place to live,” Lane said.

9 Investigates surveyed each of our local school districts, Osceola, Seminole, Lake, Brevard, Volusia, Polk, Flagler, Marion. Orange County told us they didn’t have any absentee data readily available because the information is maintained at the school level. Truancy is harder to sort through because some districts are more lenient than others when it comes to labeling students as truant. And some districts have programs in place to work with children, and flag them only as a last resort to  keep them out of the legal system, and during the pandemic truancy court has been closed, anyway.

Florida law defines “habitual truant” as a student who has 15 or more unexcused absences within 90 calendar days with or without the knowledge or consent of the student’s parent or guardian, and who is subject to compulsory school attendance. In Osceola County it recorded 896 students as truant during the 2018-2019 school year, compared to 2,423 the first part of this year. Lake County told us there are many students in programs to help keep them on track with attendance and few than a dozen have been referred for legal action. Seminole County has recorded 1,754 students as truant this year. And in Orange County the largest district reported 7,928 in 2019, compared to 19,399 in the first part of this school year. For all of the districts tracking truancy, the number of students in that category make up a very small percentage of the overall student population. For example, in Orange County it’s about 10% or one in 10 students, and in Seminole it’s about 3%

Based on the data we received from the responding districts, the average daily attendance so far this year has been a problem, too, ranging from 81 to 94% compared to 94 to 96% last year.

“Is this absentee rate more for students who are virtual or students who are supposed to be in brick and mortar schools,” Jones asked. Dr. Landry said, for Lake Schools it’s both. “Students who are supposed to be attending virtually may not be attending because their chrome book may not be working and they’re not sure how to get that fixed. And then we have the traditional students who come to school at brick and mortar but they’re not coming as much as we like,” Landry explained.

All districts exhausting every resource to find them, phone, email and in-person visits because the consequences are too risky. “The achievement gap that might exist for kids in the future could be very significant,” Landry stated. Knowing that, those trying to find take a risk each day. “The social workers are so stressed right now. They’re out there in the woods, hunting for families, sometimes they feel like they’re in danger, honestly,” Dr. Landry said. And in Osceola County, Lane told us within the last few weeks, social workers there have been going door to door at hotels in the area to track down students. There are about 136 who haven’t been in a class or logged on to virtual, not even one day this year. All of the districts stressed the biggest message for parents is that there are many school options, virtual, in person or in some districts a combination of both because students need to be learning every day.