Schools search for ‘lost students’ during distance learning

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Students walk into an Oklahoma City school. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

While schools have made contact with most students during a shift to distance learning, thousands have been unreachable and are at risk of not having contact with a school for at least the next five months until buildings reopen. 

In Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state’s largest district, more than 2,000 students – 10 percent of total enrollment – have been unresponsive to calls and emails from teachers. 

“We are still trying hard to chip away at the 10 percent of students we have left (to contact) because they are probably the 10 percent of students who have the most needs,” said Rebecca Kaye, chief of equity and accountability for Oklahoma City schools.

In Putnam City Public Schools around 5 percent of students are still unaccounted for. 

Tulsa Public Schools did not have an exact count of students who have not been contacted but wellness teams are still attempting to reach students, officials said. 

Phone numbers and addresses can change frequently for families living in poverty. Spring is also a common season for some families to move as tax refunds provide enough for a deposit on a new apartment or home. 

The closure of businesses across the state in response to the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a loss of income for many families, which can also increase mobility. 

Oklahoma schools are not keeping official attendance and grades will not be reduced, so an unreachable student may not be at risk of repeating a grade of failing a course. 

But for thousands of students across the state there is a risk of not having contact with a school for several months, a loss of learning time that can be hard to make up. 

In Edmond Public Schools nearly 500 students had not been reached as of this week. 

“Teachers are making every effort to contact the student by phone, or email when possible,” said Susan Parks-Schlepp, the district’s director of community engagement. “Some teachers have gone so far as to send letters to the student’s home using the child’s last known address listed in our student information system in an effort to make contact with them.”

Most districts instructed teachers to try and make initial contact with a student’s family during the first week of distance learning, which began April 6. 

After multiple unsuccessful attempts some teachers are reaching out to that student’s known friends or relatives in an effort to make contact. 

“Teachers are being very resourceful if they are not hearing from a particular student because we don’t want any lost students,” Kaye said. 

The Oklahoma City district has departments that work with specific student populations, such as Native American or homeless students, who are helping to make contact. The district also has 16 social workers who are involved in the effort, Kaye said. 

Kaye also said the district is focused on students who were at risk of failing headed into the final months of the school year. 

Some students were taking night classes to make up a failing grade and some schools operate on a quarter system with students relying on the now lost final quarter of the year to advance. 

“For our students who have real recovery needs we have done some strategic deployment of equipment and technology,” Kaye said. 

In Tulsa, surveys were sent to student families to determine what types of support might be needed. 

Students who need more support “were contacted by our social support specialist and social workers who are working closely with our school counselors, mental health agencies and community partners,” said Ebony Johnson, the district’s executive director of student and family support services. 

Simulating a school experience with buildings closed is nearly impossible, but Johnson said the district is working to provide the same resources students depend on during a normal school year. 

“For many of our students, schools are another home for them and the relationships that (educators) have built with their students are important and serve as an anchor for their lifelong success,” Johnson said. 

“We don’t want to lose that.”

When students are contacted teachers have asked about technology needs to assess the best way to deliver education. 

In Oklahoma City, 19 percent of students lack high speed internet at home and 37 percent have no computer with a keyboard, according to data shared by the district. 

In Tulsa, more than 40,000 printed learning packets have been distributed to students. 

While distance learning is not ideal, Kaye, with Oklahoma City schools, said contacting each student is giving the district more information about what resources students need going forward. 

“I think we often paint our students with a broad brush to where everyone doesn’t have (technology) access and that’s not really what our student body looks like,” Kaye said. “But this survey helps us to focus on a smaller number of students, which can shrink the problem that we are trying to get our arms around.”

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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