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SC schools missing thousands of students during pandemic. Officials fear abuse, neglect.

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Staff at Sanders-Clyde Elementary in Charleston prepare for packet pickup and drop-off on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, after Gov. Henry McMaster ordered the state's K thorugh 12 schools to remain closed the rest of the school year. File/Matthew Fortner/Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina social workers are trying to track down more than 3,000 students statewide still unaccounted for since schools closed nearly five months ago, according to the state Department of Social Services.

Investigations of child abuse or neglect were already under way for 152 of the nearly 3,200 students social workers were asked to find. DSS did not provide any details about those open cases.

For the rest, social workers are knocking on doors "with the goal of placing eyes on the child," reads a memo DSS Director Michael Leach sent Tuesday to legislators.

Questions that parents and guardians are being asked include "why contact with the school was lost," their plans for the coming school year and whether they have "any immediate needs," he wrote. 

As of Tuesday morning, DSS had yet to receive student data from five school districts. 

State school Superintendent Molly Spearman said her office has been asking district officials for weeks to turn over information on the children who teachers, principals and others have had minimal to no contact with since mid-March. 

"It has been an extremely frustrating process," she said, noting she lacks the authority to make them.

In May, Spearman estimated that teachers had lost contact with 40,000 students. But as districts bolstered their efforts to gather the information, the numbers kept dwindling. By the end of June, it was 16,000 unaccounted for students, which dropped to 3,560 two weeks ago.

That's less than 1 percent of the 780,000 K through 12 public school students statewide. Many districts have just a handful of students they haven't reached yet. Some have communicated with all of them. Others still haven't heard from hundreds.

Lawmakers have worried about abuse going unreported, as well as the months of learning lost for tens of thousands of students, whether or not they've been reached since the school year ended.

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With the school year starting in a matter of weeks, and many districts starting with online-only instruction — and every district offering parents an all-virtual option — legislators asked what will be done differently to maintain communication. 

"I want to make sure as we go into this new school year that somehow we’ve got a good handle on these children that just fall off the grid," said Rep. Raye Felder, R-Fort Mill, chairwoman of a House education panel.

"Those same children who did not do their packets or attend online or check in with their teachers once a month, those are the same children who are going to come back in September and say, 'I did it once and you passed me,' " she told Spearman.

Teachers across the state were told to be lenient in grading after Gov. Henry McMaster's emergency order forced all schools to close and educators had to switch overnight, literally, to remote instruction.

With many students unable to access high-speed internet, either because it's not offered locally or their parents can't afford it, their learning consisted solely of paper packets sent home periodically. In other districts, it was a mix of online learning and packets. Some returned their work or checked in online initially and then stopped.

Reasons for losing contact included students knowing they couldn't fail, a lack of internet at home, students moving to another address, phone numbers no longer working, and parents struggling to juggle work responsibilities and their children's schooling, according to a survey of principals conducted by Spearman's office.

The upcoming school year will be different, she said.    

Unlike in the spring, attendance will be taken, and normal truancy rules will apply, Spearman said. 

"They will be visiting the home if a child is not engaged in three consecutive classes," she said. "There’s a very high expectation of attendance as we go back in the fall." 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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