GREENVILLE, S.C – Most of Shasta Looper's fourth-grade class has been in regular contact with the teacher, but about 15% of her students haven't been turning in assignments.
And there's one student she hasn't heard from since the Blythe Academy in Greenville, South Carolina, closed in March to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
"That one student is still at the forefront of my mind," Looper said. "That's been really difficult, I think, for a lot of teachers. For those kids that you can't reach, you have no idea what they're experiencing."
In a survey of about 4,000 South Carolina teachers on April 1, only 17% said they had contacted all of their students. About 21% of the teachers said they had been in contact with less than half of the students in their classes.
Based on that survey, state Superintendent Molly Spearman told a panel of leaders that she estimates between 4% and 5% of students – or about 31,000 to 39,000 – have been unaccounted for since public schools closed.
Even the students who have made contact with teachers aren't all keeping up with their work, leaving educators to wonder what knowledge students will have retained if and when they return to classrooms in the fall.
Patrick Kelly, a teacher and coordinator of professional learning in South Carolina's Richland County who is on the state's education task force, told the group his Advanced Placement students, who have access to the internet, are not all participating every week.
"We've got to figure out how do we make this engaging for kids," Kelly said. "Because If we built the best platform in the world but only 40% to 50% of kids participate – I guess 40% to 50% is better than none, but the goal should be 100% of kids."
The state Department of Education has told districts not to track attendance while schools are closed.
Teri Brinkman, a spokesperson for Greenville County Schools, said the district has not tracked every student that teachers have heard from, though teachers have been asked to make every effort to contact all students.
After schools closed, the district had 70 laptops and activity packets that students had not picked up out of about 77,000 students in the district. Brinkman said staff were able to track down a few of those students but most of the 70 are still unaccounted for. That number does not account for students who already had their Chromebooks but haven't been in touch with teachers.
Spokesperson Andrew Pruitt said the Charleston County School District is working on a way to track students who haven't been in contact with staff, but the district currently does not know exactly how many there are.
In one school district in Anderson County, South Carolina, about 3% – or about 400 – of the district's more than 13,000 students have been unaccounted for since schools closed.
"Certain schools in certain areas, depending on their population, may have a different experience," Looper said. "But I think overall, every teacher has a group of kids that they are still trying to reach out to and get in touch with."
Meredith Smith, who teaches honors and advanced math classes at Wade Hampton High School in Greenville, said educators have been trying to balance having grace for students because of the difficulties they may be facing with ensuring they are prepared for next year.
"This is a strange time, and we do have varying levels of things going on in students' lives," Smith said. "It's not necessarily all the students' fault if they don't have internet at home."
Smith said she hasn't been able to reach two of her 75 students, but she knows she has colleagues with more unaccounted-for students.
Teachers in the Greenville district have been told to give only one graded assignment per week, with a minimum grade of 50 out of 100 points for middle and high school students and 70 out of 100 points for elementary school student – even if the assignment never gets turned in.
For Smith's class, that means every student will pass this year – even the ones who never turned in any assignments.
The state department told schools to continue giving students numerical grades for remote work but to average those scores with their third-quarter ones so this portion of the school year will have less of an impact on final grades. They did not tell districts how to grade students but encouraged some leniency.
Remote learning has emphasized several issues that existed before the pandemic – a digital divide between students who have resources and those who do not, the need for parent participation in student learning, and the idea that teachers can only do so much in or out of the classroom to keep students engaged.
But the coronavirus pandemic has added greater emphasis to those problems.
"Even in the best of situations, there's always students who are less engaged," Smith said. "In the classroom, if I give a classwork assignment during class time, I can go stand over those students that I need to stand over."
In a statement, the SC for Ed teacher advocacy group's board said the amount of work put on teachers to create virtual lesson plans, teach online classes, grade assignments as they come in rather than when they are due and contact families of students who aren't submitting work is leading to burnout.
"For so long the blame for student failure has fallen on the teacher and there has been very little responsibility placed on the student for their own success. To an extent, we are seeing the results of that ideology today as many of us across the state are not seeing student work submitted or students attending online meetings regularly," the statement said. "There are clear issues of equity at play here that cannot be dismissed, and teachers are understanding of this, particularly when families reach out with that information."
In the back of so many minds is the question about fall – whether classes will be held inside schools and what that would look like. If buildings are closed at the start of next school year, teachers may have to educate some students virtually whom they have never met.