At the beginning of April, several weeks after nearly all schools in the United States were shuttered, 4,000 teachers in South Carolina were surveyed about how remote teaching was going. More than 80 percent of those teachers reported that at least one of their students had gone missing, with over 20 percent saying they’d made contact with less than half of their students.

With the results in, South Carolina state Superintendent Molly Spearman told state leaders that an estimated 4-5 percent of students in the state—between 31,000 and 39,000 children—have been entirely unable to participate in remote learning since schools closed. And that is only the students who have been entirely absent; many more are participating at reduced levels.

The fact that this information came from an informal survey among teachers is already alarming; the South Carolina Department of Education actually told school districts not to track attendance while the schools are closed, so as not to punish students who can’t participate via online education. The result is that hard data on student attendance is impossible to come by, and teachers don’t have district support in trying to reach out to their missing students.

“This is a strange time, and we do have varying levels of things going on in students’ lives,” said Meredith Smith, who teaches higher math at Wade Hampton High School in Greenville, South Carolina. “It’s not necessarily all the students’ fault if they don’t have internet at home.” Smith has been trying to reach two of her 75 students without success. She’s already been instructed to pass all of her students this year, regardless of participation, but her AP students will still be required to sit AP exams to receive the college credit they’re supposed to get for their classes.

Remote learning has once again brought attention to the “digital divide” between students whose families can afford computers and internet access and those that can’t. “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,” read a statement from teacher advocacy group SC for Ed.

Grades aside, teachers are often the only person outside the household who sees a child regularly enough to safeguard their welfare. How safe are these missing thousands of students? Will they return to school when they reopen? And where will they be, in relation to their cohort?

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