Going back to school this year has been a lesson in patience. Since the surge of COVID cases this fall, many cities, including New York, Detroit and Philadelphia, have suspended or postponed their plans to hold in-person classes.
The delays and ever changing schedules have been frustrating to parents and students but also worrisome to educators who told us at the start of the school year, hundreds of thousands of students did not enroll. They're not logging in or coming in. We wondered, where did they go?
To find out, we went to Tampa, Florida where one of the state's largest school districts, Hillsborough County, saw an unprecedented drop in enrollment.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What do you hear from teachers? Are they saying to you, "We're missing kids. He should have been in my class. Where is he? He's not showing up"? Do you hear that?
Laura Tucker: Well here in Hillsborough County, we're missing 7,000 students.
Sharyn Alfonsi: 7,000 kids didn't come back?
Laura Tucker: 7,000.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How does that 7,000 number compare to previous years?
Laura Tucker: We've never had that happen.
Laura Tucker is one of 235 social workers at the Hillsborough County School District. At the beginning of this school year, their job wasn't just checking in on kids, it was finding them.
Sharyn Alfonsi: To have that many kids with a question mark next to their name-- where do you begin?
Laura Tucker: Well, every student attended some school last year. All 7,000 of them. So we start there. You know, what about their emergency contacts? You know, maybe Grandma or Grandpa is on the emergency card and Grandma and Grandpa can tell you where they are. You know we find kids because another one went to a birthday party and they saw 'em and so yeah, they're still in Tampa. Ok – you know we're energized to keep looking for that student.
Sharyn Alfonsi: This is detective work.
Laura Tucker: Right and I think that being willing to talk to friends and neighbors is also helpful.
The clues take her to public housing and suburban cul du sacs.
Laura Tucker has also gone with sheriff's deputies to check on reports of families staying in this encampment in the woods. This past week she found a 7th-grade boy living here with his mother.
Laura Tucker: I'll try anything to find students who need to be in school. But this is uncharted ground. We've never had to look this hard-- for kids, in my career.
Last month, she agreed to allow us to spend a day with her as she searched for students around Tampa. Our day began in a parking garage.
Sharyn Alfonsi: So this is your-- your makeshift office?
Laura Tucker: It is. I've worked out of my SUV for a while now… yeah all summer long.
Sharyn Alfonsi: That's your list for the day.
Laura Tucker: Yes. We're gonna start--
She read us the list of the students she was going to try to find that day.
Laura Tucker: Well we have Joshua who is 6 years old. We have Mackenzie who is 7.
Seventeen children, who for some reason have not come back to school this year.
Laura Tucker: And we have Ryan who is 7. Stewart is 6.
Sharyn Alfonsi: They're young. Little--
Laura Tucker: Yes. Yeah, a lot of little ones.
Florida state law requires parents to enroll their child in school at age 6 or notify the school district about an alternate home schooling plan. Right now, students who are enrolled in Hillsborough County can attend brick and mortar school or join class virtually. The students Laura Tucker was looking for hadn't done either.
They were marked as missing.
Sharyn Alfonsi: I guess somebody could say, "Well, it's probably paperwork."
Laura Tucker: I don't know if it's paperwork. I think a portion of them-- moved away. I think a portion of them are doing their own thing. They're homeschooling and they just haven't notified our homeschool office that that's what they've decided to do. And then some of them just aren't doing school. And you can get away with it right now. And that's really scary.
No one is keeping track of how many kids nationwide are not in school because of the pandemic. So 60 Minutes compiled enrollment data from 78 of the largest school districts in the country. The results were alarming - districts reported that when school started, at least 240,000 students were unaccounted for.
And the two largest teachers unions in the country – the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers told us their members have seen significant drops in student attendance, especially in disadvantaged communities without access to computers and the internet for online learning.
One student on Laura Tucker's list this summer was a high school senior named Kiara. School administrator Roslyn Brown went with Tucker to go see her.
Kiara was a good student who wasn't logging in and suddenly started failing classes when school went virtual. They found her 30 minutes outside of Tampa.
Kiara: I miss you guys. I miss going to school.
Kiara was here caring for her grandmother during the pandemic.
Laura Tucker: We have your number. Do we have mom's number? Or does mom have a working number?
Kiara: She doesn't have a phone.
Laura Tucker: Today we made sure that she knows that we know that she's coming back to school. Her plan is to do well. Her plan is not to disappear.
A few months ago, Kiara moved again to a motel. Her mother agreed to let her speak to us. Kiara's story helped us understand how so many students have gone missing during the COVID crisis.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How many times do you think you've moved?
Kiara: I moved a lot around Tampa. So I'd say maybe about eight, nine times.
Kiara told us her family has bounced between motels and relative's couches since she was in elementary school. Her stepfather lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Who lives here?
Kiara: Me, my sister, my mom, and my step dad.
Sharyn Alfonsi: All in one--
Kiara: All in one room.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What was it like in the spring when you couldn't go to school?
Kiara: Not having that teacher to really talk to was kinda difficult and just me not having a laptop at the time was difficult doing it on my phone. Just such a small screen.
Sharyn Alfonsi: You were doing your e-learning, your virtual learning on a phone?
Kiara: On my phone, yes.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How was that?
Kiara: It was very difficult because my phone is really skinny. At the time, I didn't have glasses so I'd have to, like, slide to the left and slide to the right and slide up. So it was just really iffy.
And she said working in the crowded motel room was almost impossible.
Sharyn Alfonsi: So you sometimes escape so that you can study, right?
Kiara: Definitely, I definitely come outside. I'll sit here and study. But sometimes, you know, the mosquitoes are coming, you know. It's hard.
Or she would walk a mile to this park.
Sharyn Alfonsi: You were coming out to places like this to get some peace and quiet but then you don't have wifi...you don't have an outlet?
Kiara: Definitely. It was very difficult but I'd try to make it work as best as I could.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Is it easier for a kid to slip through the cracks right now because of the pandemic?
Laura Tucker: Yes. Prior to the pandemic, if you were driving down the road and you saw a school aged child hanging out riding their skateboard, a social worker such as myself might stop and-- and say, "Why aren't you in school today?" Today, we'll see children on the sidewalk and they may be in school. They may be doing online learning. They may be homeschooled. There certainly are some truancy issues out there. But it's not like it was before.
Other children who should be in school aren't so easy to see. Laura Tucker found 6-year-old Joshua living with his grandmother - his legal guardian. Joshua's aunt agreed to come out to talk to us.
Sharyn Alfonsi: So what was going on with Joshua? He was supposed to be in kindergarten this year?
Joshua's Aunt: Yeah. My mother was having a hard time to putting them through e-learning and due to the COVID, like, we didn't wanna send him back out because he's still so young.
Laura Tucker: Do you have any questions for me?
Laura Tucker offered to get Joshua enrolled in virtual learning and promised a teacher would call to work out a plan.
Sharyn Alfonsi: The concern there is it's not that he's losing a couple weeks. He could have lost a year.
Laura Tucker: He could've absolutely lost a year and my fear would be he would enter in first grade, he would then struggle and then by third grade when he's taking those high stakes tests, he may not be able to progress in order to pass so if we can get him back in school, get him back on track we can avoid all of that.
School districts we spoke to said they saw their largest decrease in enrollment in pre-K and kindergarten. But it's too early to know how the disruption caused by COVID will impact student learning.
Florida's biggest industry, tourism and hospitality, was pummeled by the COVID crisis and low-wage workers were hit the hardest. This fall, Tucker has found many families at motels like this because shelters are full.
Laura Tucker: I am trying to see if a young lady is still staying at this hotel?
Laura Tucker was looking for an 11th grader named Shamika. This was her last known address.
Hotel manager: No that person checked out.
Laura Tucker: Do you know how long ago she checked out?
Tucker just missed her. She expects this job to get even tougher as more children become displaced by the pandemic.
Laura Tucker: Hoping to find a family that was living here at one time.
A federal order that stops the eviction of tenants who would become homeless expires at the end of the year.
Laura Tucker: Right now we've got a country that is about to witness evictions like they've never witnessed before. And I compare it a lot to what we experience in hurricanes here in Florida. No one expects a hurricane to blow their house over but when it does, the school district and other agencies swoop in to try and solve problems.
Around the country, school districts have mobilized. In Loudoun County, Virginia, we saw them looking for 400 students - canvassing laundromats and thrift shops.
Laura Tucker: Every principal is looking. Every assistant principal is looking. All the social workers are looking. The teachers are looking.
Kiara told us she's glad they looked for her. Three months after we first met her, she was back in school and on track to be the first woman in her family to graduate from high school. She wants to go on to junior college.
Sharyn Alfonsi: In the best situation, COVID is hard, going, you know, to school virtually is hard, and you had a tough situation. What kept you going?
Kiara: Honestly, thinking about my future and knowing that I am right there. There would be no point in giving up the three and a half years I've done for something so small or like the few months that have been super hard with COVID.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How many classmates do you think that are really still strugglin'?
Kiara: I'd say there's about maybe like four or five kids that-- in my class that I've never heard from or are not in class or even brick-and-mortar, you know? My teacher would be like, "I haven't heard from them. Are they still in school? Or what are they doing," you know? So it's just like "wow." I feel bad, you know?
We ended our day with Hillsborough County social worker Laura Tucker looking for a 4th-grader named Antoine.
It turned out no one was home. So she left a card on the door. Since our visit, last month, Tucker and her colleagues have found all but about 700 of the missing 7,000 kids. They are still searching.
Sharyn Alfonsi: You feel like you've got a good lead here and this might be the place.
Laura Tucker: Absolutely, I think we've got enough evidence that this is where the young man lives. There's a little boy living in that apartment not going to school according to the neighbors. So whether he's my Antoine or some Antoine, we're gonna get a student in school. So it's a good day.
Produced by Guy Campanile and Lucy Hatcher. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Jorge J. García.