Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

(Note: This story includes unofficial numbers provided by Charleston County School District. The official number of unaccounted-for children, released after this article was originally published, is 356 students.)

An effort to contact every Charleston County K-12 student has uncovered “traumatic kinds of family circumstances” for many not participating in online or packet-led instruction, according to Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait.

By the end of May, the district identified 79 students that had not touched base with school staff or their teachers since schools shuttered March 15 in an effort to curb coronavirus infections. With teachers and principals knocking on doors and the aid of law enforcement and state agencies, Charleston County was able to track down all but 23 students of 49,928 enrolled students.

“Some of the children were in homeless situations. Some of them were where the guardian parent had been arrested. Some of the children were living with a grandparent who had contracted COVID-19 or some other illness; the child was becoming the caretaker and not able to engage in school,” Postlewait said. In other cases, a high school student may have taken on full-time employment to help his or her household make ends meet.

“It was every situation imaginable,” she said. “We did discover some situations that constituted neglect and we reported those.”

According to Postlewait, the children more likely to be disengaged from online or packet-led instruction came from high poverty areas in the county.

“The children we all know who are most vulnerable and need public schools were more likely not to be engaged,” Postlewait said.

Statewide, as many as two in 100 South Carolina public school students have not checked in with their teachers since mid-March, according to preliminary data collected by the S.C. Department of Education and shared with legislators.

An early estimate from 800 of the 1,221 public schools suggested as many as 13,500 children were unaccounted for.

Another estimate shared by Lexington Republican Sen. Katrina Shealy suggested as many as 15,225 students from 1,200 schools are unaccounted for, saying that more people need to be worried.

“If two kids go missing it’s a Dateline story. If 15,225 kids go missing, it’s either a Stephen King novel or the Rapture happened and we got left behind, and somebody has to be worried,” Shealy said, adding that the more likely outcome will be thousands of children left behind academically.

Depending on which estimate is used, some 1.7 percent to 1.9 percent of public school students have not had contact with their teacher since March 15.

Children, especially those in low-income households, could lose out on learning and, with fewer abuse and neglect cases reported since schools shuttered March 15, they could be in bad situations, completely unknown, said York Republican Rep. Raye Felder, a House Education and Public Works Committee member.

Last week, the House and Senate convened briefly to approve $222.7 million in federal money for the S.C. Department of Education and school districts to fund in-person education programs prior to the start of school to help catch up kids who have fallen behind during remote learning, which began March 15 as the state sought to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“There is a sincere level of concern,” she said.

“Even if you try to do summer reading camps, math and language arts prior to the start of the academic school year, if we don’t have a way to reach these families, then how do they know?” Felder asked.

Many of the remaining 23 children still unaccounted for in Charleston County are assumed to have moved away, Postlewait said. She added that most were older and in high school.

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