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As coronavirus school closures continue, scores of Tucson children have fallen off the radar
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As coronavirus school closures continue, scores of Tucson children have fallen off the radar

From the May's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Cases rise, judge rules that state can keep nursing home data from public series

Tucson schools are working to track scores of children and families who aren’t responding to phone calls, emails or logging in to remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the coronavirus shuttered Arizona schools seven weeks ago, scores of Tucson children have fallen off the radar, despite attempts by concerned educators to connect.

Educators’ inability to reach children even once since the closures went into effect raises concerns not only about academic achievement, but also about safety and social-emotional well-being.

While Tucson-area school districts acknowledge that some kids have gone missing in action, most don’t have an exact count and are just now working to track that data.

UPDATES: Tucson area coronavirus developments, June 1: Here's what we know

Many more children have not been consistently engaged in remote learning.

Finding and engaging kids has primarily fallen to individual teachers and schools. Out of Tucson’s nine major school districts, only Sunnyside and Sahuarita have collected districtwide numbers on the students who are missing.

Tucson’s largest school district, TUSD, has not reached all of its students since remote learning began. Tucson Unified, which serves about 44,000 students, is beginning to gather data on how many are unaccounted for, says spokeswoman Leslie Lenhart.

Sahuarita School District hasn’t been able to find 33 students, despite a continuous effort by staff and teachers to reach students and families.

Sunnyside, Tucson’s second-largest district at about 15,400 students, has 17 students they haven’t connected with at all. Several educators in the district say having a one-to-one program, with each fourth- through 12th-grader issued a laptop years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, may have helped achieve such a high contact rate, suggesting students vanishing may be tied to an inability to get online.

However, Sunnyside also gathered data from each school and found nearly 1,400 kids are disengaged from remote learning, about 9% of the student body.

“We’re not only interested in the kids doing work but also in their social wellbeing, their mental wellbeing because kids need to have social interaction,” say Gloria Platt, a fifth grade math teacher at Santa Clara Elementary in Sunnyside. “We know that these are difficult times for them, not being able to go to school, not being able to interact with their friends.”

Unlike TUSD, Sunnyside has been conducting home visits to look for the unreachable kids, while following social distancing and other safety measures.

Platt keeps track of which students pick up work packets at school. She sends emails, leaves often unreturned voicemails, and calls emergency contacts and numbers sometimes no longer in service.

Along with the other fifth grade teachers at her school, Platt was able to reach seven more students who were MIA earlier this month. There are still three fifth-graders the teachers haven’t found since they left for spring break seven weeks ago.

STRUGGLING TO MAINTAIN ORDER

Like many teachers across Tucson, Platt has been working tirelessly to reach and engage with all her students.

She told one student if he didn’t start signing into his online classes, she was going to put on protective gear and head over to his house.

Platt finally reached his mother on the phone, who said they had internet in the home, but she was struggling to maintain order.

Disengagement or a lack of commitment to remote learning is not necessarily intentional, says Martha Damek, a counselor at Marshall Elementary in TUSD.

Parents are in very stressful situations, whether it’s because they’re juggling working and caring for children, or they have lost their job and are struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table.

“Emotionally, they’re just trying to do what they feel right now needs to be done,” Damek said. “And if it’s putting more priorities on fulfilling their job and the parent using the computer instead of putting the children on Zoom, I do think those are some of our situations. ... Are they just trying to get through the day and do what’s needed?”

Educators suspect some families have moved due to financial hardship, which was likely present before the pandemic. Several educators said their students have relatives in Mexico who they went to see over spring break, and may not have come back once they heard the schools were closed. And some parents who have to work and lack child care may have sent children to live with a relative.

In the case of older children, some are tasked with taking care of younger siblings, and some older teens are working more to help with financial hardship.

THE EFFECTS OF POVERTY

Sunnyside, along with most Tucson districts, has offered laptops or other devices to students who need them.

Santa Clara has a high population of low-income students. Also, many students are bused in from the Tohono O’odham reservation, where internet connectivity is especially challenging. Not only do many of these students lack internet, many don’t have personal phones and have to wait for their parents to get home from work to use a parent’s cellphone as a hot spot, Platt says.

Sunnyside staff members have been taking cellphones to some homes to act as mobile hot spots, especially on the reservation and in low-income areas. But even then, those phones are not on a plan and that hot spot only lasts until the phone runs out of prepaid minutes.

Out of 73 fifth graders at Santa Clara, only about 30 are consistently logging onto Platt’s online classes. The other 43 kids are sporadic and may only log into classes once a week.

In Amphitheater School District, where there are also high levels of poverty, households with prepaid cellphones are another reason students are hard to reach, says Roseanne Lopez, associate superintendent for elementary education.

“They have cellphones where they go out and buy their minutes, whenever they can afford to buy their minutes,” she says. “If they’re at work or if they don’t get paid until Friday, they usually run out of minutes on Tuesday and consequently, they’re very hard to reach.”

Most unreachable children in the Amphitheater District live in areas where there are high levels of poverty. The district is keeping a database and beginning to track levels of engagement and which students they haven’t touched base with.

The district has distributed over 2,000 Chromebooks, but it’s no good having a device if you can’t access internet. And despite free and reduced-cost internet, which companies are offering due to the coronavirus pandemic, not everyone has the ability to read and understand the technology behind setting up a router and troubleshooting connectivity problems, Lopez says.

SAFETY NETS

Having an engaged adult is key to the success of a child’s education, Lopez says, whether that’s a parent or guardian in the home or a teacher or staff at school.

Public schools play a critical role in the safety of children, with employees mandated to report any signs of abuse or neglect in children, which they don’t know about if they’re not in touch with them.

“We are hopeful that they’re all in safe places, and they’re all going to be OK. But what we know because we deal with this on a daily basis, is that we are very worried about some of them. Are they safe? Are they being fed?” Lopez says. “We’re not going to know until we get them back, and it’s not going to be this year. The teachers are really worried.”

When children can log on to a class, whether it’s over Zoom or another virtual meeting platform, they are able to get the social connection they may be lacking.

“That social connection is so important because when we don’t have that, that’s when isolation and depression can be a result of disconnection,” Damek, the TUSD counselor says.

Even when Damek can’t reach a student, she’ll leave a message, hoping they can hear her voice.

“This is my Wednesday call. Remember I call at 2 o’clock,” she tells them. “I’m here for you. And I’m not going to stop calling because I care about you.”

INTERVENTIONS

Sunnyside identified a number of reasons why kids have disengaged, including the quality of the relationship with their teacher, self efficacy, meaningful work, adequate work conditions at home and an ability to navigate the online space.

The district is working to identify whether a disengaged student needs immediate intervention, which could be academic, technical, social, emotional or something else. An intervention could be done by a teacher, counselor, outside agency or Project AWARE — a program in the district, supported by a five-year federal grant, that trains employees on suicide prevention and talks about mental health in the community.

Every Sunnyside teacher attempts to make contact with each of their students at least once a week and reports the level of contact back to their principal. If a student hasn’t checked in with any teacher, the district will send a security team or counselors to do a home visit.

“We just want that confirmation that they’re OK,” says Kelli Romero, a licensed clinical social worker with Project AWARE. “It’d be nice to assume that if they’re at home, they’re safe, but we just don’t know that. So it’s certainly a priority, and really coming together as a multidisciplinary team with the district to figure out how do we address that.”

TUSD is starting an “each one, reach one” initiative, where staff will be assigned to certain families to check on them and see what needs the family has that the district can help address. One part of this effort will be continuing to track kids who have vanished since the closures.

For many Tucson teachers, the effort to find students is endless.

Adam Ragan, a Sunnyside High School English teacher, repeatedly reminds his students to check in and let him know they’re OK, even if that means sending a text at 11 at night. Perhaps more important than the academics at this point is letting his students know he cares about them.

“They may choose to engage where they find meaning,” he says. “And that’s why those student relationships are the key to everything. If educators don’t build that relationship when they can with students, you can’t force it in a pandemic.”

And when in-person classes resume, there will be even more work to be done.

Lopez, in Amphi, says when schools reopen, students will have to be assessed and adjustments will have to be made. Many Tucson districts have said they will need a rigorous evaluation process for the children who have completely disengaged.

Project AWARE, in Sunnyside, is considering training educators on classroom management techniques to reintegrate children back into the classroom when schools reopen, says Elizabeth Allen, Project AWARE manager.

“So that if I have a kindergartner who hasn’t been in school for six to nine months, their climbing the walls is not necessarily that they’re being a bad kid or disrespectful of you, teacher, it’s just that they don’t know,” Allen says. “What we need to do is teach them.”

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223.

On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara.

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