On an average school day, about 94 percent of the 840 Harlandale Middle School students will show up for class. Kids might miss school because of an illness, family emergency, or a personal issue, but that’s to be expected – those missing will likely be back in a day or two. Statewide, the average daily attendance rate is 95 percent.

But with the new coronavirus shutting students out of the classroom and forcing them to stay home, attendance becomes a significant challenge, and some students have been out of touch with their teachers for weeks.

Students are not following a typical school day routine, and truancy officers aren’t able to make at-home visits in the same way, so campuses are having to go to extreme efforts to reach their students.

While these efforts are paying off, the students who remain out of touch were already the hardest to reach under normal circumstances, educators say.

“There are things that are bigger than classwork at this point and that’s their livelihoods,” Harlandale Middle School Principal Ricardo Marroquin said.

Emphasis on outreach

As of Monday, Harlandale ISD had not heard from about 3 percent of their 14,000 students after multiple attempts have been made to connect with students to administer paper lessons or online instruction.

Marroquin and the staff of his middle school worked diligently to get in touch with absent students, making calls and sending e-mails to family members. Last week, the school had winnowed down the list of unresponsive students to 40 kids.

Many of those on that list came from families who were scared to leave their homes to get devices or paper materials, the principal said. Staff decided to go directly to the families, packing bags with instructional supplies and a letter with phone numbers for resources and help.

The school hung the packages on fences or left them on front porches. Three-quarters of the families contacted the campus after the at-home visits. This week, seven students remain out of touch at Harlandale Middle School.

“We are down to less than 1 percent,” Marroquin said. “We’re still staying at it, reaching out to extended family members saying we’re just trying to find the students and parents.

“It’s not about we just want their grades, [or that] they need to pass classes. It’s [important] to have them all engaged so they know we are here to support them.”

Ricardo Marroquin, principal of Harlandale Middle School Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In East Central ISD, similar efforts are underway with the same challenges frustrating educators’ best efforts.

Connectivity was the first hurdle in reaching students for remote learning, Superintendent Roland Toscano said. To overcome it, the district purchased devices and mobile hotspots and began distributing them at campuses. They also made paper packets available to anyone who wanted them.

If students or families didn’t show up to pick up either of those, teachers made a note, adding their names to a list of unresponsive students. The campuses then took a case management approach and tried a number of different tactics to reach each student.

Teachers have found some success in talking to engaged students who live nearby and asking them to reach out to their peers. They’ve also connected with some students on social media and used emergency contact information to track them down.

Educators are also making home visits, knocking on doors to ensure their students are safe.

“In many cases, we found that some students just aren’t there,” Toscano said. “They’ve left or relocated due to the circumstances, and, in those cases, we’ve turned it over to our own internal Student Services Department that has a social worker.”

ECISD and several other local districts are also leaning on partnerships with community organizations to reach students.

In South San Antonio ISD, that means working with Communities in Schools and SA Youth, said Executive Director of Instructional Services Lorraine DeLeon.

Through these partnerships and the work of the “army of educators” at each campus, DeLeon said the district has been able to reach 96.6 percent of elementary students and 92.2 percent of secondary students.

Those remaining are sometimes dealing with extraordinary circumstances, she said, recalling that one South San teacher got in touch with two families that were stuck in Mexico and Honduras, respectively.

Edgewood ISD Superintendent Eduardo Hernández cited similar examples at a meeting Tuesday night, telling his board that staff tracked down students who had moved with their families to Dallas and Laredo because of coronavirus.

They can still engage with the district via remote lessons for now, but they may not return to Edgewood next year.

Preexisting conditions exacerbated

The same challenges that existed before the new coronavirus began spreading remain now, Toscano said. The students who were not engaged or less interested in schoolwork before may be even more difficult to engage now.

“It’s pretty significant poverty. There’s trauma. In some cases [Child Protective Services] involvement,” Toscano said. “You’ve got some families that are in a bad way financially to begin with and now they’re not working.”

“Quite honestly, you know there are parents who don’t even want to hear from us at this point. They appreciate that we are persisting, but they’ve got bigger fish to fry in their households.”

Some parents have even told ECISD educators that they don’t plan to respond or won’t open their doors, Toscano said.

East Central ISD tracks student engagement weekly. As of Wednesday, ECISD identified 500 students who had not been in contact in any capacity. But on any given week, that number can fluctuate between 500 and 800. Some students who previously were in good communication with their schools have fallen out of touch.

The way each school district tracks student engagement can vary. The Texas Education Agency doesn’t mandate that schools take attendance, but does ask that districts maintain a continuity of instruction. This has resulted in a variety of definitions of student engagement.

For ECISD, engagement means a teacher has collected at least one assignment from a student each week. But in San Antonio ISD, where 93 percent of students are considered engaged as of this week, picking up a laptop or talking with a campus staff member counts.

Northside ISD, San Antonio’s largest school district, uses a different measure to track engagement for elementary and secondary students. The district considers elementary students engaged if they log onto instructional applications Google Classroom or Seesaw or fill out paper packets. On Thursday, a Northside ISD spokesman said the district has seen 89 percent engagement for its youngest students.

At the secondary level, engagement is tracked through individual courses. The reason for the difference is that some students may keep up with coursework in math and science but not in art. NISD reported that secondary students engaged in an average of 91 percent of their classes.

Northside used an escalating scale of intervention to get in touch with missing students, Superintendent Brian Woods said. First, teachers contacted kids in their classes. Then, non-teaching staff like counselors and administrators attempted to get in touch. Home visits came next.

Like Toscano, Woods acknowledged that some students will be experiencing dramatic disruption that will make getting in touch a massive challenge.

“We’ve got some families that are now experiencing homelessness that haven’t ever in the past,” Woods said. “If we can’t get in touch with them between now and the first week of June, we’re going to have to use summer and other ways to remediate that loss of time.”

With just a few weeks left in the 2019-20 academic year, Woods and other school leaders will focus their attention on planning summer programming so they can maximize the time to catch up students who weren’t able to keep up with instruction and may have fallen behind on schoolwork.

Are you an educator or do you have a student in your home who now has to learn remotely?

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.