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DSS workers track down all but 60 SC students who went missing after learning went virtual

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Desks are set up inside fifth grade teacher Vanessa Mijango's classroom at Joseph Pye Elementary School on Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020, in Ladson. File/Gavin McIntyre/ Staff

COLUMBIA — South Carolina social workers have found all but 60 of the thousands of students statewide who teachers lost contact with after schools closed six months ago and classes went virtual, the Department of Social Services reported Wednesday.

With learning continuing remotely, DSS Director Michael Leach urged educators to make sure students don't go missing again this fall simply because they don't have the resources to learn remotely, such as lacking internet access and transportation. Defining what to do when communication stops or students aren't turning in work could include home visits, he said.

"While all families are impacted by the pandemic, and the obstacles it brings, families in poverty and families who are in marginalized populations are especially vulnerable and are at much higher risk to be left behind during this time," he wrote in his report to legislators.

Social workers and law enforcement officers who paired up across the state beginning July 29 tracked down 3,010 students who stopped communicating with their teachers amid the spring's online and paper-packet instruction. They discovered 167 others had moved. 

Of the 60 they were unable to contact despite "multiple attempted home visits and attempted phone contacts," four are 18 and older, according to the report. 

Leach asks education officials to cross-reference enrollment data to determine whether the 227 children who moved or couldn't be found at all have registered for school somewhere in South Carolina.

State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has repeatedly assured legislators that, unlike in the spring, attendance will be taken daily this fall, whether students are in the classroom or in virtual-only school districts. She has said the normal truancy rules will apply, which should mean someone will knock on the door of a child who hasn't logged in for three consecutive days.

But DSS should not automatically get involved at that point, Leach noted.

Families should not be "marginalized or subjected to a traumatic investigation solely due to resource issues or lack of contact with education professionals," he said, adding that DSS call center workers have been trained on when a complaint involves a school issue for educators to check out before they launch a child abuse investigation. 

After schools closed in March, an estimated 40,000 students had little to no contact with their teachers for the rest of the school year. School districts whittled down their lists significantly by the time legislators asked DSS to get involved in the effort to find the children.  

Of the 3,010 students successfully reached and visited, the reasons their parents and guardians cited for ending communications include the lack of a computer, no internet service, parents’ inability to help their children with difficult material, struggles with trying to help children of different ages while working full time, an inability to reach teachers for help with assignments, no transportation to pick up or drop off packets, and Spanish-speaking families unable to understand materials printed in English, according to the DSS report.

Investigations of child abuse or neglect were already underway for 152 of the students social workers were asked to find. DSS has not provided any details about those open cases.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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