More than 500 Sacramento kids have lost touch with the Sacramento City Unified School District since schools closed their doors in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The number of kids who hadn’t started the distance-learning process was initially higher — 1,636 students — but school district employees have whittled the number of kids down by calling, texting and emailing families over the past few weeks.
Now, school officials are trying to reconnect with the kids who are hardest to reach, by visiting children’s homes one-by-one.
"We’re getting down to our truly, truly, unreachable, no-contact students," said Jennifer Kretschman with the Sacramento City Unified School District, who is heading up efforts to find the kids and help them log into their online classrooms.
Kretschman says initially, the district may have lost touch with students because they had outdated contact information for families. Some kids didn’t start distance-learning right away because they didn’t have a laptop, or had trouble logging into classes. But other families are lost in the shuffle because of tough life changes.
"A lot of families were displaced and had to move or go stay with relatives just because of job loss and all the other things that were happening," Kretschman said.
Last Wednesday, Kretschman and Ethel Baker elementary school Principal Nate McGill ventured out in face masks in the triple digit heat to a South Sacramento apartment complex. They were trying to locate students in three different families.
The two didn’t just help families connect with online learning, but also told them about new COVID-19-related food stamp benefits.
Kretschman says for some families, schooling children at home is too much to handle amidst the chaos of the pandemic.
"When families are overly burdened, they can’t pay their rent, food insecurity, and all sorts of things are piling on top of them — plus this general anxiety and fear around COVID around what they should be doing — people just freeze. They just stop. It’s like a trauma response," said Kretschman.
The school district says one of the biggest obstacles to reconnecting with students and their families is a language barrier. It says many parents they’ve reached out to about distance learning speak Farsi, Spanish or the native language of the Marshall Islands.
One of the families that Kretschman and McGill visited recently is from Afghanistan, and has been in Sacramento for less than a year. A neighborhood teenager just happened to be nearby and helped Kretschman communicate with the mother in Farsi. Her little girl hasn’t checked in with her elementary school class.
But not all the kids who have lost touch with schools are from immigrant families. About one-quarter of them are African American, according to a CapRadio analysis of data provided by the school district about the 552 unreachable school children as of last Thursday.
The data show that 38% are Latino and 21% are Asian. The students also have learning needs that require more attention; 44% are English-language learners, and 102 of the students, or approximately 19% of the unreachable kids, need special education.
During normal times, RoLanda Wilkins holds leadership classes for girls in several South Sacramento schools. She says some of these disconnected kids may have been struggling even before COVID-19.
"People have always been disconnected, we just couldn’t see them before," said Wilkins. "COVID is showing us where all the potholes are, where all the cracks were, and some of us knew it because we were working around those cracks."
Kretschman and McGill rousted some kids out of bed during their 10 a.m. home visits last week. They say kids are on a different schedule now, and there are only a couple more weeks left before school ends.
"I worry about their social and emotional well-being, their mental health, especially for the kids who are losing connections," said Kretschman.
"As we go into summer, we have another two and a half months of being disconnected. And so, my biggest fear is losing that connection, and then next year, not being able to bring them back in."
Sacramento schools officials plan to visit each and every school kid they haven’t heard from — a task that may take them through the rest of the summer.
Note: The demographic categories of students shown in the charts in this story are not exclusive. One student could be included in multiple categories, such as a racial group, and also be a recipient of special education.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.