Updated November 2, 2020 - 11:36 am
On the second chilly morning of the school year Tuesday, a group of eight volunteers from the city of Las Vegas fanned out in a North Las Vegas neighborhood to find the Canyon Springs High School students who have fallen out of contact with their school during distance learning.
The missing students could be facing any of dozens of obstacles to logging in to their online classrooms, such as a lack of access to a computer or the internet, having to work during school hours to support their families or burnout from nearly eight months of isolation.
But as the group approached the first house on their route, the most immediate hurdle to clear was the front yard fence.
Fences mean dogs are present, explained the volunteers, who have been going door to door since the statewide Connecting Kids initiative began sending teams to support the efforts of school attendance officers and social workers doing the same.
But AmeriCorps Community Navigators Austin McKenzie, Daisy Villanueva and Jaret Reyes approached the gate anyway, hoping that someone in the house would see them standing outside — or would answer their phone if called.
Since September, teams of volunteers like this one have been canvassing neighborhoods in search of missing students — defined as those who haven’t logged in to their classes consistently or been in contact with their school. Their combined efforts have whittled the number of missing students from an all-time high of 107,000 to under 700 as of Oct. 27.
By the district’s count, 552 students are still AWOL — having not reported access to a device or internet connectivity or logged in to their classes consistently — compared with 67,000 at the beginning of the year.
“The goal is to get to zero,” said Tami Hance, CEO of Communities in Schools Nevada, one of dozens of groups working on the Connecting Kids initiative.
A sense of urgency
On Tuesday, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Clark County, along with The Harbor, had teams walking neighborhoods throughout the valley to find students who haven’t answered calls from the school or from the Connecting Kids call center, Hance said.
The trio outside the fence was spotted by a young child playing in the yard, who fetched the student the volunteers were trying to reach. Over the noise of construction work going on at a neighbor’s house, the high schooler in question confirmed access to a device and the internet, Villanueva said. The team noted the conversation in the student portal Infinite Campus and moved on to the four dozen or so houses on their list for the day.
“We’ll keep monitoring,” Villanueva said. “They know we’re keeping an eye on them and maybe they’ll log on so their parents don’t get mad.”
The volunteers approach families gently, said City of Las Vegas Management Analyst Rocio Martinez Saucedo, first identifying themselves as representatives of the high school and asking for a parent or guardian. They explain that the student is missed by their teachers and ask if the family needs a laptop or a reliable internet connection; a cellphone doesn’t make the cut.
If the family is in need, the volunteers have been cleared to access Infinite Campus to refer them for a hotspot, or to give them the phone number of their school to arrange for a laptop. If the student has access to both, they might need help logging on; some volunteers have been known to ask the student to bring their computer to the door to troubleshoot the issue, Hance said.
Martinez Saucedo said there’s a sense of urgency among volunteers, who decided collectively that they needed to help after the school district announced its virtual school year.
“If we didn’t get these kids now, they might lose the whole school year,” Martinez Saucedo said. “The consequences of that would be seen for years to come.”
The second house on Tuesday’s route was also gated — a coincidence, but not something the team has frequently encountered in the past, said AmeriCorps VISTA member Rebecca Dunne. Moreover, there were no cars in the driveway, nor did anyone answer the phone.
In cases like this, the team would note that a contact attempt was made and try to reach the family again another time. But before they departed, they were able to reach over the fence to leave two flyers in the house’s mailbox: one from the school district with contact information for the school, Connecting Kids and resources like The Harbor, and another from the City of Las Vegas with information about assistance programs.
Volunteers have encountered families who have never needed government assistance in the past now in need of help accessing it, Hance said. Housing assistance is likely the most-needed resource in the wake of eviction moratoriums lifting, she added.
Another common thread keeping students from logging in to their classes lately is that many high schoolers have taken on jobs to support their families and now work during school hours, said Marcus Wing of AmeriCorps VISTA. He said he hopes that they’ll be able to adjust their work schedules to be able to attend school in person when buildings reopen.
Students who work during live session hours still get attendance credit if they catch up on schoolwork in the evenings or on weekends, according to a presentation to the Las Vegas City Council by School Associate Superintendent Lorna James-Cervantes.
Younger students and their families are also having trouble staying motivated for distance learning, Wing said.
The district’s weekly attendance rates have ebbed and flowed since the beginning of the year, peaking at 91.4 percent during Sept. 7-11, and then slowly dropping off to 88.14 percent in the week of Oct. 19-23. Average daily attendance stands at 90 percent this year, compared to 94 percent last year.
Martinez Saucedo, Wing and Dunne approached the third house on their route as the bell rang at the elementary school across the street. There was no gate — but two small dogs patrolled outside, so the trio made a call to the house instead of approaching, just in case.
This time, the student was not only available, but in need of both a Chromebook and a reliable internet connection. She hadn’t heard that the school was offering laptops this year, Martinez Saucedo said. After a brief conference, the team referred her for internet access in Infinite Campus and gave her the number for the school to arrange to pick up both a hotspot and a laptop.
As of Oct. 27, the district had 2,624 students still in need of a device, having given out 243,538 devices total.
Even if the student is not able to get to the school, Martinez Saucedo said, she should be able to make arrangements to have both devices dropped off.
“They’re able to clear both those obstacles for her right then and there,” Hance said.