An estimated 3 million US students vanished from school during the COVID-19 pandemic — and the crisis isn’t over yet.
Story by Laura T. Coffey, TODAY
Illustrations by Keith Negley
September 15, 2021 12:21 PM EDT
Imagine how crazy it would be if every school-aged student in a state the size of Florida just ... went missing. Fell off teachers’ radars and didn’t turn up again.
Sound impossible? Last year, it happened.
In March 2020, when most schools across the United States closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, teachers and administrators scrambled to set up remote learning on the fly. Elementary, middle and high school students suddenly had to organize themselves at home and keep track of myriad assignments like little college students.
Many of them simply couldn’t do it. Among the most vulnerable of those who couldn’t do it, many gave up altogether.
The nonprofit research organization Bellwether Education Partners estimates that 3 million students — the equivalent of Florida’s entire school-aged population — disappeared from the nation’s education system after March 2020. Some of those students — including kids who were able to switch to homeschooling, start attending private schools, or postpone or skip kindergarten enrollment — are likely to be just fine. Education experts are much more alarmed over the hundreds of thousands of students who have been getting little or no education at all since the pandemic began.
To arrive at its estimate of missing kids, Bellwether considered groups of the nation’s 50.7 million public school students who could be considered “marginalized”:
Such students can struggle to participate in school regularly in the best of times; amid a global pandemic, many of them found it impossible. Hailly Korman, lead author of Bellwether’s “Missing in the Margins” report, said her organization cross-referenced local and state reports with federal data and estimated that up to a quarter of those 12.4 million marginalized students fell through the cracks, meaning that as many as 3.1 million were not engaged in school during the pandemic.
“I’ve never wanted to be more wrong about anything,” Korman told TODAY Parents. “But those numbers keep holding up.”
Another recent report by FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University, revealed that student absenteeism spiked during the pandemic, with students “missing far more days than in past years — some absent as much as half the year.”
This dire situation prompted exhausted and worried teachers to knock on students’ doors and call and text parents and grandparents repeatedly in an effort to make contact with missing children and teens, according to multiple interviews with teachers and administrators. Sometimes they found students who were busy providing child care for young siblings; others were working low-wage jobs to help support their families financially during the pandemic. It also was common to find kids of all ages who lacked adequate internet access or academic support at home. Or, they just failed to find the kids at all.
Experts shudder to think that such scenes could repeat in the 2021-22 academic year. Already, after mere days of in-person instruction, some schools have reverted to virtual learning because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
To provide a sense of just how easily a student can “disappear” in a remote learning environment, here are four teens’ pandemic stories. Their last names are being withheld to protect their privacy.
Hiedi, 14, of California
Hiedi was a veteran student at a middle school with a focus on academics along with plenty of exercise for students. She did just fine at the school during her sixth and seventh grade years — but last year, her eighth grade year, she disappeared.
“We have a rule that if you don’t show up for first ten consecutive days of school, you are unenrolled,” said the school’s principal. “We tried to reach Hiedi and her mom, but we got no reply. We figured that the family must have moved away to a different school district — or maybe they returned to Mexico?”
Fast forward to early May 2021: Hiedi’s mom called the school and asked whether Hiedi could start attending again.
“I said, ‘Oh awesome, where have you been since August?’” the principal recalled. “Her mom said, ‘Oh, Hiedi didn’t go anywhere.’ And then it hit me: WHAT?! She’s just been home?
“I thought she had transferred to another school. I never imagined that she was just sitting at home for an entire school year. That’s the one I’m most upset about.”
As it turns out, Hiedi’s family had been hobbling through a very rough year. Three of their family members died of COVID, including Hiedi’s grandmother. Hiedi said her mom was crippled with grief, especially over the death of her mother, who used to live with the family.
“Not having my grandma here made everything different,” Hiedi told TODAY. “I had to do the cleaning and wash the dishes and try to make myself food. I tried to help out my mom.”
Hiedi’s mother works long hours, so she couldn’t be home to monitor her daughter’s remote school participation during the day. Hiedi said the family’s Wi-Fi also tended to be glitchy and unreliable.
As the school year went on, Hiedi found it harder and harder to pull herself out of a grief- and boredom-induced funk. She knew it wasn’t good for her to stay up so late and sleep so much during the day — so, she finally asked about returning to school. For that final month of the academic year, she was able to attend in person.
“It was good being back,” Hiedi said. “I had people helping me a lot. It was nice.”
The principal said Hiedi will need to repeat the eighth grade this year. She added that the school will be increasing access to mental health counseling for students and emphasizing the kindness of “a warm, supportive environment.”
“In Hiedi’s case, this was a family dealing with serious grief,” the principal said. “Who am I to judge?”
So far this academic year, though, Hiedi has disappeared again. She hasn’t reported to school anywhere as far as her principal can tell. The family’s phone numbers are disconnected. Attempts by TODAY to reach Hiedi and her mom were unsuccesful.
“Hiedi is a prime example of the aftermath of the pandemic,” the principal told TODAY. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Isaiah, 13, of New York
Isaiah, a middle school student in New York City’s west Harlem neighborhood, likes Roblox, basketball and anime. He’s a talented artist and an attentive student — that is, when teachers are there to nudge him, encourage him and keep him on task.
Left on his own without supervision, he drifts. He sleeps late. Once he wakes up, he finds it hard to focus.
“Yeah, it was pretty terrible last year,” Isaiah told TODAY Parents. “Oversleeping happened for me most of the time.”
Benjamin Lev, 40, the founding principal of Hamilton Grange public middle school, goes out of his way to get to know the students at his school. Lev likes Isaiah. He knows he’s a good kid.
“Isaiah was a solid student, but during the pandemic and remote learning, he just didn’t come to school,” Lev recalled. “We’d call his mom and say, ‘Isaiah’s not in class.’ She’d say, ‘What?!’ and she’d call Isaiah all upset. …
“In person, with the daily support that’s offered in school, he would have done fine. Absent that support, it just wasn’t enough.”
Sometimes Isaiah would try to log in to school later in the day, but he’d still be marked as absent because he had missed attendance in the morning. Other times he tried to tackle school assignments on his own, but they were confusing because he had missed the lectures about how to do them. Meanwhile, during the height of the COVID-19 crisis in New York City, Isaiah’s mother was slammed at work as a practice manager for two sites at a local hospital.
“I was one of the first people there in the morning, and I’d still be there at eight o’clock at night,” said Isaiah’s mom, Sharay, 41. “I would come home from work so tired. I knew he needed help, but there were times when I couldn’t even help him. With no supervision and people on top of him, he kind of just gave up.”
Lev said he saw similar situations with too many students during the months of remote learning.
“What was most troubling for me were all the kids right here, still on the block, right on 138th Street, who were not coming to school,” Lev said. “We’d reach out and find out that families were so overwhelmed dealing with the pandemic. How could they sit next to their son from 9:15 to 2:45 every day and make sure he attended school? It was just a luxury they couldn’t afford.”
The principal noted how hard it is to expect “even the most highly functioning 11-, 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds” to stay on top of all the emails and digital documents generated by nine separate middle school classes in Google Classroom.
“These are skills we don’t ask of most adults,” Lev said. “Most young people simply do not have the executive function skills to organize themselves in the structural abyss that remote learning is.”
Lev and other administrators at his school decided to pass all students on to the next grade, regardless of how much they did or didn’t participate in Zoom school. He said the focus this year will be on providing mental health support for students and helping them get caught up academically.
“Our kids were tasked with something unimaginable,” he said, stressing how badly the school’s west Harlem neighborhood was affected by COVID-19 deaths. “We felt like we need to offer a lot of grace during this time. To hold a young person responsible for all these factors that were utterly beyond their control would have been punitive and unempathetic.”
Isaiah said he is grateful that he doesn’t have to repeat a grade, and he’s excited about attending eighth grade in person this year.
“I think it’s going to be a lot better,” he said. “I’m gonna improve my grades. I just want it to go back to normal.”
Foster sisters, both 13
Editor’s note: The family members’ names in this story have been withheld to protect the foster children’s privacy.
This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs help please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
Two foster sisters who live together in a big city are conscientious to a fault. They work hard in school. They immediately do the dishes when asked. They’re always the first to jump in and help.
“These girls want to be so good,” said their foster mom, 48, a freelancer who works from home. “They want to get good grades, to succeed. But that became very, very difficult in remote learning.”
The girls came from different homes to their foster family, and like many foster children, they both experienced significant trauma as children. The girls tend to keep their feelings about their early years bottled up. They go through life with brave masks and compliant demeanors.
“Part of their trauma led them to think, ‘If I get good grades and do everything right, they’ll definitely keep me,’” their foster mom told TODAY. “That’s the problem with foster care: There’s no permanency. Kids struggle with a lot of anger, a lot of resentment, and it’s quiet, but it bubbles, bubbles, bubbles. ...
“It’s always there, underneath the surface, bubbling like a little river of rage.”
The abrupt transition to virtual schooling in March 2020 happened when the girls were in the sixth grade. They’d hit their middle school stride with teachers, clubs and fun social plans with friends — walks in the park, outings to go get bubble tea. All of that came to a halt. The girls had to cancel everything and stay inside.
One of the girls began isolating herself more and more each day. She insisted on doing her schoolwork scrunched into a small space on her top bunk bed. When she started falling behind on assignments, the red notifications of “late, late, late, late” in Google Classroom sent her into a spiral of anxiety — but she was too scared and self-conscious to ask for help.
Meanwhile, the other daughter began doing assignments over and over and over again until she’d get grades of 100%.
“I’d see her grades and say, ‘Wow, you’re rocking this,’” her mom recalled. “But she was basically numbing herself through work. She was drowning. She was dying.”
In spring 2021 — one year after the initial school shutdown — the sister who was determined to get all A’s tried to take her life by suicide. She was hospitalized for a month, and she never returned to school. Her school administrators decided to stop the clock on her school year and count her work up until that point as the completion of her seventh grade year.
Soon after, her sister needed to be hospitalized as well.
“She confessed that she was suicidal,” their mom said. “She told me, ‘When I was sitting in my bunk in the pandemic and watching my grades going down, down, down — that’s how it all started.’”
To date, both girls have each been hospitalized twice in a span of four months. Their foster mom and her husband, who also works from home, say they don’t know what they’ll do if the delta variant of the coronavirus closes in-person school again this fall.
“Kids need to be taught in real time with real teachers,” their mom said. “They need to be with their friends. …
“Every mom I’m friends with who has a teen in this age bracket tells me that their kids are suffering. They’re talking about cutting themselves, about depression, about suicidal ideation — and these are not foster kids. For the most part, these are nuclear families with moms working from home or full-time moms. As parents, we’re present! We’re here! We’re engaged! And still, during remote learning, our kids are suffering.”
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
Eli, 17, of Washington state
Eli is a beloved student at Tyee High School just south of Seattle. Last year, when she didn’t show up on Zoom during the first part of her junior year, her absence was noticed.
Desiree Robinette, Eli’s advisor and advanced placement U.S. history teacher, tried to track Eli down — but it wasn’t easy. Finally, word made its way to teachers and school administrators that Eli didn’t have reliable internet access at home, and she had another reason for missing all those Zoom classes: She had a job at Jiffy Lube.
“As soon as I heard this, I said, ‘Which Jiffy Lube?’” said Jay Novelo, a dean at Tyee High. “I heard it was in the city of Kent, and there were several, so I started making phone calls. When I found the right one, I asked the person who answered the phone, ‘Will she be there all day?’ They said yes, so I drove right there.”
Novelo surprised Eli at work with the delivery of an internet hotspot. Eli was so touched by the effort that she offered Novelo a free oil change.
Even with the hotspot, Eli’s attendance didn’t improve significantly until the second semester of the school year when her older sister took her in and became her guardian.
“She has to obey by the rules and regulations of my house. This is what love looks like,” said Eli’s sister, Deanna, 30. “This world is changing, and with the drug crisis we have out here now, I’m trying to keep a grip on her. ... She was into making that money at Jiffy Lube, but that was a gateway to stupid things and a source of income for her and her friends.”
Eli agrees with her sister’s assessment. She said she had a hard time focusing on school during remote learning.
“That computer was not holding me down,” Eli told TODAY Parents. “The streets kept calling my name. …
“When I had been able to go to school in person, that was a way to get away from all those things.”
Eli is reeling from a painful wake-up call in June 2021. That’s when her best friend died; the teenager was found with strangulation marks around her neck.
“She was like a sister to me,” Eli said, noting that the same thing could have happened to her. “She was my homegirl.”
Despite the rocky school year, Eli worked long hours late at night to complete school assignments after she moved in with her sister. She finished enough work that she was able to pass her junior year.
“The biggest success I saw with Eli this year was her resilience,” said Robinette, Eli’s advisor. “This was such a weird year, and she was really trying to finish and do the best she can. That’s one of the biggest adulting skills: to acknowledge, ‘Yeah, I really struggled and I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I’m invested and I’m going to put in the work.’ To me, that’s success.”
Eli said she’s determined to return to in-person school for her senior year and earn her high school diploma.
“I’m gonna thrive this year,” Eli said. “I want to have people flabbergasted over how much I accomplish.”
Laura T. Coffey is a senior contributing writer, editor and producer for TODAY and is the author of the best-selling non-fiction book "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts."
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