Millions of Students Went 'Missing' From Classrooms During the Pandemic. Many Haven't Returned.

No one knows exactly how to get them back.


During the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a staggering number of students went "missing." Kindergarten enrollment rates dropped, and students already enrolled in classes failed to log in for online learning.

From March to October 2020, the education nonprofit Bellwether estimated, as many as 3 million students nationwide went missing from classrooms. Another estimate from FutureEd, an education think tank, found a sevenfold increase in the number of students missing at least half a school year during the pandemic.

Once in-person school resumed, many students didn't return to the classroom, nor did they register for homeschooling. No one knows exactly how to get them back.

According to the Associated Press (A.P.), California alone is missing more than 150,000 students, while New York is down nearly 60,000. In all, around 230,000 students in 21 states and Washington, D.C., are missing, which suggests that many more students are absent from classrooms nationwide. When the A.P. and Stanford University researchers analyzed data from pre-pandemic years, they found that almost no students were missing.

The government is now designing new interventions to try to keep these students from going uneducated. In 2021, Connecticut unveiled a program that sent trained visitors to the homes of more than 8,000 students. "Reaching out to family seems to be really important, because it's probably not just a student's own decision to be missing school or leaving school," says Jing Liu, an education researcher at the University of Maryland. Connecticut's program de-emphasizes the role of truancy courts to punish absent students and their guardians, a feature that should appeal to civil liberties advocates.

"It's the home visitors' job to build trust, [help parents] understand the importance of school, and [let them] know they don't need to worry and their kids are safe in school," a Connecticut State Department of Education official told Education Week in January. Nine months after their first visit, students in grades 6–12 served by the program had a 16-point increase in their attendance rates compared to chronically absent students who weren't visited.

"The key to keeping kids in school is noticing as soon as possible when they're starting to miss too much, so someone can go out and talk to them and re-engage them, and find out what would help them to come back," says Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works. "If you let it go for months or years, you can't find them then."