Editor’s Note: On March 15, 2020, Gov. Ned Lamont ordered all schools in Connecticut closed due to the pandemic. In the months that followed, learning moved online and many schools still haven’t reopened to full-time classroom instruction. On the one year anniversary of this event, we examine the impact a year of disrupted learning has had on the state’s children.
On his first day as the nation’s education secretary, Miguel Cardona claimed the spotlight as he and the first lady toured an elementary school in his hometown, about one year after COVID-19 first disrupted the lives of students, teachers and parents.
After a quick round of thanks to the school staff, family and mentors who got him here, Cardona pivoted to the most pressing issue.
“And how are the children? And how are the children?” Cardona asked, slightly raising his voice for emphasis the second time. “You know the strength of a community when you ask: And how are the children?”
Cardona might also have asked ‘where are the children?’
Connecticut saw a record 3.1% drop in enrollment — that’s 17,844 fewer students — in public or private schools this school year at the same time 95% of enrolled students didn’t attend full-time in-person classes through January due to the pandemic, either because of family hesitancy or districts not offering a full return.
“It’s a huge question. Where are these children?” said state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, who heads the watchdog agency.
While most districts throughout the state saw fewer students showing up for school or logging on from home, the drop disproportionately landed in the state’s 10 lowest performing districts, as drastically fewer children from low-income families showed up for school.
The impact has left many children struggling to cope with the disruption and trauma the virus brought with it.
Data from the state’s child welfare, social service and education agencies show how serious the problems are. The number of families reported to the state Department of Children and Families for educational neglect between October and December more than doubled compared to those same months in previous years. Thousands more people are calling the state’s hotline seeking emergency shelter each month, many of them with children. Hospital officials warn they have reached “a crisis level” as more kids show up at their emergency departments in distress, typically with threats of self-injury or suicide — and a record number of 40 children from low-income families on any given day are now stuck in the hospital while they await a bed in a psychiatric treatment facility. One in three students with ADHD is now chronically absent from school, and half of those with a diagnosed emotional disturbance, such as anxiety or bipolar disorder, are missing an excessive amount of school.
Shortly after the pandemic hit last March, Shkeia Dickerson’s landlord asked her and her three children to move out of their apartment in Meriden. She wasn’t behind on rent and she thought the state and federal eviction moratoriums should have prevented her from being uprooted during a pandemic, but her landlord said she was planning to sell the place.
Dickerson — who suspects that the hot housing market piqued her landlord’s interest in selling — left as soon as an eviction was threatened. She couldn’t risk losing her Section 8 voucher if she was evicted and she was anxious to avoid the permanent stain on her credit from an eviction request.
She packed light as she prepared to bounce between family, friends and motels. She left behind the children’s beds, dressers and countless other belongings.
During this upheaval, her kids sporadically logged onto school online.
You’re calling [DCF] on us left and right, left and right, left, right. And then what if our kids get taken? What if our kids get taken all because you made a report [when] you simply could have came up to that parent’s house and said, ‘Hey, this is going on — What can we help you with? ”
It didn’t take long before DCF was called.
“My kids were stressed out. We were everywhere. We went from house to house to house. I got family members that was trying to help, but everybody was saying we could only stay so long. So we’re like, two weeks here, two weeks there, bouncing around, bouncing around,” said Dickerson. “You’re calling [DCF] on us left and right, left and right, left, right. And then what if our kids get taken? What if our kids get taken all because you made a report [when] you simply could have came up to that parent’s house and said, ‘Hey, this is going on — What can we help you with?’”
Dickerson’s family was just one of the 1,468 families reported to DCF for educational neglect during the first three full months of the school year, which is about 2.5 times more reports than the agency receives in a typical year.
When social workers and other DCF staff investigated this influx of reports, the percentage that turned out to be actual cases of educational neglect was smaller than normal. However, the influx did result in an increase of cases substantiated as neglect.
Chaz Brackeen, a DCF social worker in the New Haven region, has seen the uptick in reports firsthand. Most of her cases involve children who are old enough to stay at home and not logging on while their parents work.
“I’ve had cases where kids have not signed on since the whole pandemic, so the whole school year. So these kids have like 80 absences or more because they never signed on. You should see all the cases that I’ve had because of kids just not logging on at all and lying to their parents,” said Brackeen.
Many teachers and parents have been successful in getting students back in school before DCF is called, however.
In Middletown, teachers and school counselors are showing up at students’ doorsteps to encourage their attendance. If the student’s family is struggling to connect to the internet, they bring tech support or give the family free wi-fi. If the student seems to be struggling with anxiety or depression, they bring a mental health expert. If the family is facing eviction, they help get them in the long line for rental assistance.
If the student just isn’t interested in school, they talk about something exciting going on at school.
Sometimes the visits are just to check in and see what a student looks like if they’ve never turned on their camera during remote class — with the goal of building a better relationship with them in-person.
During a recent visit, the team encouraged one of the sophomores learning from home to turn on his camera more. Another, aware that one of his teachers and the school counselor were going to stop by, turned in some overdue assignments shortly before they arrived.
“The visit is to figure out the why: Why are our students maybe not engaging?” said Kristen Negrón, a high school counselor in Middletown.
When one student went completely MIA for two weeks, Negron and some other school staff decided to go where they thought he might be.
“If we had gone by the book with him during this school year, he would have been our first call phone call to DCF. Instead, we drove around for a while and found him on a street corner. Our whole crew hopped out. We were so excited. We got his new cell number and got him connected with his teacher. He was in school yesterday in the building,” Negrón said.
Research released last month by the RISE Network — the same organization that is helping to fund initiatives to get student re-engaged in school, such as the porch visits in Middletown and tutoring sessions in Meriden — found that the percentage of students in danger of failing has doubled since last year in historically struggling high schools. This school year, 33% of students are not on track to progress to the next grade, compared to 15% last year.
Jahnaya West Fleming’s two sons were not on track.
Fleming works full-time at a daycare near her apartment in New Haven and couldn’t convince her 12- and 13-year-old sons to regularly log into school while she worked. When she got their second quarter report cards, she panicked.
She sat them down and tried to appeal to them to work harder while they waited for their school to reopen and offer in-person learning. She also set up cameras so she could spy on them from her phone while she was as work, took away their cell phones and video games, and installed a landline so she could call them if she saw they were not in front of their computers when they were supposed to be.
When I think about students who are not getting the things that they need to be successful in the world, it just breaks my heart. It really does, because they already started at a disadvantage even if it was just because of the color of their skin — and now they’re in a place where they’re not getting the education at all.”
She also warned her boss that she might need to leave work for a while.
“I was showing her the grades, and I told her, I’m going to have to take some time from work — because honestly, from my perspective, I kind of felt like I was neglecting my own children. I am giving my heart out here with these children, but my children were struggling. And that, that right there really hurt my soul,” said Fleming. “And I put that responsibility on [my sons]. I sat them down, and I had a critical conversation with them, and I let them know. … So now what if I don’t go to work? They say, ‘You’re not going to get paid.’ I said, ‘Exactly,’ and asked what is that going to mean for us?”
It seems to have worked. They now attend classes and are earning all Bs and Cs.
But many other students are still absent.
Bria Parkman-McCullough, an English teacher at Central High School in Bridgeport, has students who haven’t shown up for months at a time, often because they have to go to work to help their parents who lost their jobs during the pandemic.
“Sometimes they might show up for the first or second week of the semester, and then you don’t see them anymore. And then there are the students who will come sporadically, maybe once a month, twice a month, say ‘Hi’, and that’s pretty much all you hear from them,” she said. “When I think about students who are not getting the things that they need to be successful in the world, it just breaks my heart. It really does, because they already started at a disadvantage even if it was just because of the color of their skin — and now they’re in a place where they’re not getting the education at all.”
Certain groups of students are showing up for school much less than they were last year — an issue that might worsen the state’s already largest in the country achievement gaps.
Homeless children, who have the highest share of students learning entirely online this year, are not showing up for classes at nearly twice the rate of last year, state data through Feb. 17 shows. Last year, on average, homeless students were absent one out of every nine days; this year that rate increased to one out of every 5 days. These students are primarily concentrated in the state’s poorest and historically underserved districts.
I’ve had cases where kids have not signed on since the whole pandemic. So the whole school year, so these kids have like 80 absences or more because they never signed on. You should see all the cases that I’ve had because of kids just not logging on at all and lying to their parents. ”
Caseworkers at New Reach, a New Haven-based agency that provides services for homeless people, have seen firsthand how housing insecurity prevents children from learning and creates other problems.
“Housing instability creates stress for parents and, as with other stressors, this can impact the parent’s ability to navigate the situation of shelter or housing insecurity,” one counselor wrote in a recent survey. “There is a focus on housing and basic needs, which is tiring and takes a lot of energy. Education with and for their children is not as much a priority when there is the threat of homelessness or getting basic needs met. In my opinion, this stress and uncertainty trickles down to the children as well and may show up as behavior issues, difficulty sleeping, acting out, needing reassurance etc. Housing is a basic need, the threat of not having this need met could be similar to the impact hunger has on children and their ability to focus in school.”
“Everyone has the right to a sound mind. Homelessness and poverty robs one of such. Children experiencing homelessness and poverty often lack the ability to eat a healthy nutritious meal, ability to control emotions, ability to focus and the ability to be happy in general. These are all elements a child needs to receive a good solid education,” another wrote.
Are children better off with DCF’s involvement?
Connecticut has strict laws requiring teachers and other school staff to report to DCF when they believe a child is being abused or neglected.
In the pandemic world — where 74,000 public school children are still learning entirely from home — that law complicates things since a student not logging on can indicate an issue of internet access or potential neglect.
“What we see, based on continued reporting about kids being left behind in the pandemic, can be also construed as panic on the professionals’ part, saying, ‘I need to make the call just to protect myself, not that I believe this parent is neglecting their child, or is intentionally neglecting the child, but to protect myself and make sure I don’t get in trouble. I need to make a report.’ And that’s kind of where we are struggling in the pandemic,” said Michael C. Williams, the agency’s deputy commissioner of operations.
“I do think people are concerned,” said DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes during a recent interview. Dorantes noted that when people call the DCF hotline because a child has gone off the radar, those teachers and others are just asking, “How are they? Is everybody okay?”
Dorantes said it’s the job of her vast agency to assess each call, and further investigate if necessary, to determine if a child is being neglected. But most often, as the data show, it is not neglect — it is just a matter of getting parents and children help for whatever is preventing them from showing up for school.
“When something rises to the threshold of educational neglect, there’s a suspicion that the parent is not providing the educational opportunity for that child or doing something that inhibits this child from coming to school,” she said. “I think families have been trying to hold it together to keep everybody healthy and safe and to try to understand the expectations of remote learning, which is difficult. So I do think that the bucket of educational neglect is a little bit more complex than just, you know, kids and their attendance at school. … Educational neglect for me feels different than [just attendance], it feels like there’s a willfulness of not having your child be educated, and I don’t know that we see that. I think we see families trying to figure it out.”
While DCF’s mandate is to help get students back on the right track, there can be downfalls associated with their involvement.
“Once DCF starts looking and they get into a family’s life, they can find something,” said Josh Mitchom, an attorney in the public defender’s office that helps families intertwined with the state’s child protection agency. “In the aggregate, it is not good. I’m sure we could find examples where a report of a child and family getting access to services leads to a good outcome. But I think calling DCF for most non-acute problems is like calling the police for a noise complaint. It is a blunt instrument … They’re not going to remove a kid for absenteeism — but it is a stressor on families that are already stressed.
He has a client whose 14-year-old child struggles with significant mental health issues and hasn’t been showing up for school. When the child walked out of the house and the mom called the police, DCF got involved.
Educational neglect for me feels different than [just attendance], it feels like there’s a willfulness of not having your child be educated, and I don’t know that we see that. I think we see families trying to figure it out. ”
“And now DCF is harping on the issues of non-attendance. The mom already knew she had a situation, and now DCF is saying, ‘We want you to get a mental health assessment, we want this, we want that.’ And I think it can often be more stress than resolution,” he explained. “It’s good to provide services, but it’s not usually good to provide them under threat of coercion. That causes a lot of stress, and I’m not sure that it works.”
Williams, the agency’s deputy commissioner, said that DCF has an obligation to do a full audit on families where neglect is suspected based on what was reported to the agency’s Careline — a process that typically takes weeks.
“It requires us doing a lot more in-depth, kind of collateral gathering on a family, other than just what the report was made for. So we look to see if they are up to date on medical and dental and on just a whole host of things, because now we are involved, and if something else is going on in the home, other than an educational neglect, we can be held liable for missing that,” he said. A knock on the door from DCF announcing a suspicion of abuse or neglect “will put a level of anxiety inside of you, because you don’t know what else we’re going to find.”
A record drop in student enrollment
Public schools throughout Connecticut saw a record drop in students enrolling this school year compared to last year. Nearly two-thirds of those not enrolling were from low-income families.
Public schools lost one out of every 33 students. In private schools, it was one in 16.
Roughly 44% of the drop can likely be attributed to families deciding to wait a year to send their child off to public pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, state officials believe. Another 17% can be traced to more families opting to homeschool their children.
That leaves a decrease of 6,981 students whose absence is unattributed to any cause.
The State Department of Education stopped tracking student transiency several years ago, but officials there believe the drop is a combination of the state’s natural declining school-age population and parents who are homeschooling their children but didn’t formally unenroll them. Parents are asked to inform the district if they decide to homeschool their child, but the state Department of Education does not require them to do so.
Connecticut’s law that enables parents to take children out of school says, “Each parent or other person having control of a child five years of age and over and under eighteen years of age shall cause such child to attend a public school regularly during the hours and terms the public school in the district in which such child resides is in session, unless such child is a high school graduate or the parent or person having control of such child is able to show that the child is elsewhere receiving equivalent instruction in the studies taught in the public schools.”
Gov. Ned Lamont proposed legislation in 2019 that would have required home-schoolers to start registering annually with their school district. The proposal came shortly after Eagan, the state’s child advocate, found in a study of six public school districts that 36% of students withdrawn for homeschooling lived in families that had at least one prior report for suspected abuse or neglect from the Department of Children and Families.
That study was prompted by the death of Matthew Tirado, a 17-year-old Hartford youth with autism who died from starvation, dehydration and child abuse in 2017 after he went missing from school. While he was never withdrawn from school, his mother did fill out the paperwork to homeschool his sister.
There is “an inadequate framework in Hartford and statewide for ensuring the safety of and education for children who are withdrawn from school to be home-schooled,” Eagan wrote in her 80-page investigation.
Droves of protesters showed up at the state Capitol to oppose a registration for home-schooled children, some alleging the registry would be used by DCF to crosscheck families with abuse or neglect investigations. Proponents point out that Connecticut is among those with the least regulations.
The legislature ultimately opted not to require a registration.
The unaccounted drop in enrollment has left many worried.
“One of our biggest concerns is how much of the declines in enrollment are attributable to students leaving the education system altogether and not receiving any education. Right now, it’s very difficult to identify that group of students that has fallen through the cracks in the system,” said Michael Morton, the deputy executive director of the School and State Finance Project, an organization that lobbies at the state Capitol for education reforms.
The drop-off has disproportionately shrunk the state’s largest public school districts, with places like Hartford losing one in 13 students, Bridgeport losing one in 17, and New Haven losing one in 24. While declining pre-Kindergarten enrollment is a main driver in these districts, there has essentially been no increase in the number of children whose families have submitted the paperwork to show that they are being homeschooled, state data show.
In Bridgeport, just over half of the district’s decline in enrollment is from the drop in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment.
Michael Testani, the district’s superintendent, said he believes the remaining drop is attributable to fewer immigrants moving into the city as the federal government tightened the border, more families being priced out of his and other neighborhoods in Bridgeport as the housing market heats up, and a slight uptick in students attending a local charter school.
“I don’t think there’s kids missing. I mean, we’ve gone as far as getting people out to the homes to check on kids that aren’t engaged,” he said, adding that since the end of October, when his district submitted enrollment numbers, several families have notified the district they are home schooling their children. “With any homeschooling option, obviously, the concern is: are they getting the time, the instructional time, from mom or dad or whomever? … Is it robust curriculum that’s being used? And then, also, are we going to start seeing them once the pandemic kind of subsides? Are we going to get an influx of students? That’s why we’re planning as if all these kids that we normally would have enrolled in our buildings are coming back.”
Where are the kindergarteners and pre-kindergarten students?
When it came time to decide whether she was ready to send her two daughters off to school, Brackeen decided to send 3-year-old Gabriella to pre-kindergartens but to keep her 4-year-old in daycare rather than enroll her with her sister at their school in New Haven.
Keeping her oldest daughter in the same program she was already attending was appealing, and Brackeen needed to work.
“My job never stopped,” she said of being a social worker.
In New Haven, nearly three-quarters of the decline in student enrollment is from fewer children enrolling in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten.
Statewide, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment shrunk this year by just over 7,800 students, a 14% drop from the 2019-20 school year.
“There were basically thousands of students who [the education department] expected would be enrolled who were not,” said Beth Bye, the commissioner of the state’s Office of Early Childhood.
There wasn’t an uptick of children from low-income families showing up at daycares, data provided by the Office of Early Childhood shows.
Instead, many families were keeping children home.
“We said this is a real problem. There are all these preschool kids who haven’t shown up anywhere,” said Bye.
So the agency used some of the federal emergency response money sent to the state to deploy staff and the community and found 1,000 young children who were staying home. They helped families enroll 700 of those kids in public or private preschool or day care programs.
“But you know, that’s 1,000 kids out of 15,000 that were missing,” she said. “There are definitely concerns. We know how important the first five years of life are and that most brain development is going on in those first six years. And so losing a year of preschool is a big deal.”
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program. The Connecticut Mirror retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.