(AP) — She’d be a senior right now, preparing for graduation in a few months, probably leading her school’s modern dance troupe and taking art classes.
Instead, Kailani Taylor-Cribb hasn’t taken a single class in what used to be her high school since the height of the coronavirus pandemic. She vanished from Cambridge, Massachusetts’ public school roll in 2021 and has been, from an administrative standpoint, unaccounted for since then.
She is among hundreds of thousands of students around the country who disappeared from public schools during the pandemic and didn’t resume their studies elsewhere.
An analysis by The Associated Press, Stanford University’s Big Local News project and Stanford education professor Thomas Dee found an estimated 240,000 students in 21 states whose absences could not be accounted for. These students didn’t move out of state, and they didn’t sign up for private school or home-school, according to publicly available data.
In short, they’re missing.
“Missing” students received crisis-level attention in 2020 after the pandemic closed schools nationwide. In the years since, they have become largely a budgeting problem. School leaders and some state officials worried aloud about the fiscal challenges their districts faced if these students didn’t come back. Each student represents money from the city, state and federal governments.
Gone is the urgency to find the students who left — those eligible for free public education but who are not receiving any schooling at all. Early in the pandemic, school staff went door-to-door to reach and reengage kids. Most such efforts have ended.
“Everyone is talking about declining enrollment, but no one is talking about who’s leaving the system and why,” said Tom Sheppard, a New York City parent and representative on the city's Panel for Educational Policy.
“No one,” he said, “is forthcoming.”
A PROBLEM NOT DISCUSSED
The missing kids identified by AP and Stanford represent far more than a number. The analysis highlights thousands of students who may have dropped out of school or missed out on the basics of reading and school routines in kindergarten and first grade.
That’s thousands of students who matter to someone. Thousands of students who need help re-entering school, work and everyday life.
“That’s the stuff that no one wants to talk about,” said Sonja Santelises, the chief executive officer of Baltimore's public schools, speaking about her fellow superintendents.
“We want to say it’s outside stuff” that’s keeping kids from returning to school, she said, such as caring for younger siblings or the need to work. But she worries teens sometimes lack caring adults at school who can discuss their concerns about life.
“That’s really scary,” Santelises said.
Discussion of children's recovery from the pandemic has focused largely on test scores and performance. But Dee says the data suggests a need to understand more about children who aren’t in school and how that will affect their development.
“This is leading evidence that tells us we need to be looking more carefully at the kids who are no longer in public schools,” he said.
Over months of reporting, the AP learned of students and families avoiding school for a range of reasons. Some are still afraid of Covid-19, are homeless or have left the country. Some students couldn’t study online and found jobs instead. Some slid into depression.
During the prolonged online learning, some students fell so far behind developmentally and academically that they no longer knew how to behave or learn at school. Many of these students, while largely absent from class, are still officially on school rosters. That makes it harder to truly count the number of missing students. The real tally of young people not receiving an education is likely far greater than the 240,000 figure calculated by the AP and Stanford.