The 3 Million Who Never Showed Up for Virtual Schooling

For some students, the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic on education goes far beyond coping with the difficulties of distance learning. For these students, a day in March or April marks the last day of their formal education altogether. Out of the approximately 53 million K-12 students in the United States who stopped attending in-person school in the spring, an estimated three million may have never showed up online at all.

That figure comes from a new Bellwether analysis that estimates the number of students who, due to various barriers, did not make the transition, remaining disconnected even as schooling continued online. Just as the pandemic has disproportionately affected our most vulnerable and marginalized communities, this “disconnected” population is more likely to be composed of English learners, students in foster care, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and students with disabilities. Three million students is approximately 1 out of every 4 of these student populations combined — and also roughly equivalent to the entire school-age population of Florida.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, social unrest, and a general election, it’s easy to miss what’s happening here. But just like the pandemic itself, the defining feature of this crisis is the scale — this is something that every district, in every state, is struggling to address. Once a young person leaves school, it can be very difficult to re-engage them. The long-term implications of even a short period of learning loss are serious, and the outcomes associated with dropping out of high school are even more dire.

We could be witnessing the beginning of an event that has lifelong implications for this generation of students, in much the same way that the Great Recession has hamstrung millennials’ accumulation of wealth relative to previous generations. And among the young people of this new generation, the harshest impacts fall, time after time, on communities of color, students with disabilities, and those living in poverty. 

That’s a gloomy picture to paint, and it’s easy to feel as though we can’t grapple with this problem the way we would want to, given the enormity of everything else happening in the world. But there are concrete steps we can take right now to mitigate the damage being done, from improving attendance data collection — and data sharing — across public agencies to implementing interventions that meet the most vulnerable students where they are. Many teachers and leaders have identified a need for collaboration with social service providers and telecommunications firms to provide Internet connectivity to those in dire need. And states must provide stronger guidance, funding, and resources for schools and social services that can be spent flexibly, effectively, and in a timely manner.

Above all, the number one thing public officials can do to start to repair the damage done — and to prevent the unimaginable harm of a “lost generation” — is to develop and effectively implement the public policies needed to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic by reducing community transmission to levels negligible enough to permit a return to the normal school environment. There is no sustainable education policy workaround that can surmount a public health crisis of this magnitude. Back on March 13, seven months ago, it was difficult to imagine we would find ourselves in this position; our best course of action now is to take aggressive action on behalf of the roughly three million students whose educational futures are in the balance.