Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist

Youth Wellness Series-Missing Students

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Missing Children: Chronic Absenteeism in Calaveras County Schools Has More than Doubled Since Before Pandemic

Where are these children, and are they being educated?

Marie-Elena Schembri, Calaveras Enterprise, April 14, 2022

Is the state and nationwide trend of enrolled students “disappearing” from schools is happening, too, in Calaveras County, then why? And where are these children going?

The Enterprise asked county superintendent of schools Scott Nanik as part of a larger story looking into the mental health and wellness of youth in the community. Nanik provided answers to questions many locals might be asking, like why are there school-age kids wandering around town in the middle of the day? Why aren’t they in school? Where are their parents, and what can be done to help?

It’s no surprise that children across the United States have been reported “missing” from school since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning in spring of 2020. With schools managing constantly changing federal and state regulations, adhering to health department requirements, quelling frightened parents’ demands to defy orders—all while balancing the task of keeping kids safe and engaged with their education—it has undoubtedly been hard for some to keep up. Adding illnesses, staffing shortages, shutdowns, and the integration of virtual learning, it's easy to see how the pandemic has been challenging for students, parents, staff, and administrators.

In Calaveras County, students might be especially challenged when it comes to navigating the pandemic, as many of these students already struggle with having their basic needs met. The poverty rate is over 11%, roughly 17% of youth don’t have medical insurance, and only about 84% of households have internet access, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nanik and the county office of education (CCOE) spend ample time trying to track down chronically absent students by phone or mail.

“We start intervening as fast as we can, connecting with services. We'll do welfare checks. The sheriff's department's been extremely supportive,” said Nanik. He says they’ll even resort to checking social media to locate families whose students have gone missing. “(We’ll do) anything we can think of to figure out what's going on with a family and the kids.”

Nanik asks the community to help, too. “If they see kids out during the day, and they're kind of wondering what's going on…and if they know of people that are struggling with getting their kids to school and having issues…encourage them to call the county office here and ask for the SARB (student attendance review board) coordinator. …Our goal is to get kids in school, and (do) whatever it takes.”

Once a school “has exhausted all resources and a student's attendance has not improved, then a family may be referred to a SARB hearing,” reads CCOE’s website. SARB intervention “is the last chance to keep students and families out of the court system.”

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that Calaveras County’s chronic absenteeism rate is 37%—far greater than the statewide rate of just over 14%. According to the report, “students are determined to be chronically absent if they were eligible…during the academic year and they were absent for 10% or more of the days they were expected to attend.”

Per the data, cumulative enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year in Calaveras County was 5,349 students. Of those, over 4,600 had at least one absence during the school year. Those eligible to be counted chronically absent included 4,886 of those students. Over 1,800 of those students were considered chronically absent during the school year.

Data shows that the chronic absentee rate has more than doubled since the 2018-2019 school year, during which only 847 students were considered chronically absent. Data is not available for the 2019-2020 school year due to Covid, but the absences have continued well past the days of remote instruction and mask mandates as students approach the end of the 2021-2022 school year.

Nanik reports that his office currently has 116 open SARB cases. He said, “So that's 116 students who have missed more than 10% of the school year (18 days), and most of these have missed much, much more than that.”

When asked if this was normal, Nanik said, “No, it's more than normal. We normally don't have this many in the pipeline. Now, I will say that in the context of normal for the past year-and-a-half because of Covid.”

Nanik, who has worked in the county for 21 years and as the superintendent of schools since 2017, pointed out that those 116 are just “the most intense” cases of student truancy and attendance problems. During the pandemic of the last couple of years, “we really seemed to have a bunch of kids just kind of disappear,” said Nanik.

The superintendent is positive, however, that the issue is declining overall. Some students are returning to school and maintaining attendance on an upward trend.

Nanik acknowledged that Calaveras County schools “tend to have higher (absentee) rates than the state,” but says that’s because “we don't allow schools to take a student off the books” unless they can verify that they've enrolled in another program, or the parent has filed what an R-4, which is the private school affidavit, meaning that they are homeschooling their children.

Nanik says when kids are homeschooled but parents don’t provide the affidavit, it can count toward “dropouts and really poor attendance,” making the chronic absenteeism rate seem higher.

Children who are homeschooled and were never in the school systems won’t affect the absentee rates but aren’t accounted for either.

When asked if it’s these kids one might see walking along the highway on a Monday afternoon, or skateboarding down Main Street in the middle of the day, Nanik says it's possible, though there’s no way to know for certain.

“It would be amazing to have the budget, either in the sheriff's department, probation, or the schools to have an attendance officer to kind of go ask those questions,” Nanik stated. He also advised that the county “catches” a small handful of families each year through involvement with Child Protective Service (CPS) whose kids are missing school or have never been enrolled.

There are many reasons youth might not be in school, but Nanik says it mostly comes down to “family struggles. … They're either struggling with housing, they're struggling with finances, they're struggling with drugs and alcohol.”

Accessing services

According to Nanik, childhood depression is a factor in kids and teens not making it to school.

“They don’t want to get up and go to school,” he said.

A “child wellness” report by Children Now for 2020-2021 ranked Calaveras County against the state for “children’s well-being.” According to the report, 35% of Calaveras youth experienced chronic sadness and/or hopelessness, while 38% of students statewide experienced the same emotional distress. Of the students surveyed, 22% of Calaveras youth reported that they had contemplated suicide (more information on youth mental health to come next week) while only 20% statewide admitted to having suicidal thoughts.

Children Now also determined that of the 10,535 youth living in the county, 45% are living at or below 200% of the poverty level (For 2022, 200% of the poverty level for a family of four would be an annual income of $55,500). The report indicates that 148 students were experiencing homelessness, and 20% of Calaveras youth are “food insecure.” Of the youth surveyed who have medical coverage, 67% had not had a yearly preventative checkup, which is cost-free for Medi-Cal recipients as well as most other insurance policies. The wellness report also reveals that 15% of students surveyed were “chronically absent” from school.

Additionally, schools and daycare programs being closed may mean older kids stay home to babysit their younger siblings. Then there’s the issue of poverty, parental unemployment, and other troubles at home. Some kids start working at a young age, forgoing their education to help the family.

Another factor is transportation. A lack of access to public transportation (especially in rural towns) can make it difficult for children to get to school in our rural communities, especially if their mom or dad leaves for work early in the morning and comes home late at night, or the family doesn’t own a car.

One way Nanik says the county is trying to overcome these struggles is through their newly implemented wellness centers, managed by Sierra Child and Family Wellness in collaboration with the county. The centers were funded through a $2.4 million grant and are now in all 10 of the county’s elementary schools. According to the website for the centers, they “will be available to assist students and families with navigation to community resources, to offer a safe space to explore needs/concerns and to improve the overall health and well-being of students.” This includes offering students counseling and connecting them to various services they may need via licensed mental health professionals, social workers, and family specialists.

It starts at home

Perhaps children in Calaveras County who are struggling to get to school have bigger issues on their minds. According to Fara Roberts of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), local youth have a higher risk of exposure to abuse due to many factors like poverty, lack of resources, drug use, and mental and physical health issues.

Roberts, who is the program director at CASA of Calaveras and Amador at Nexus Youth & Family Services, is also a councilmember of the Prevent Child Abuse Council (PCAC) and a committee member for the Family Wellness Coalition. PCAC is a multi-organization coalition with the aim of improving “ the well-being of all families in Calaveras County through safe and healthy relationships within homes, schools, and communities.”

The First 5 Calaveras Commission has been working on compiling data around factors that influence child abuse for the last three years in order to create a “strategic plan that promotes a comprehensive and integrated system of early childhood development services to address community needs.” The culmination of this research will be presented in a special board meeting at the end of the month.

CASA and PCAC will also recognize nominated community members “who have provided remarkable services to children by being a reliable source of support, mentorship and advocacy” at the fourth annual Light of Hope ceremony, which will be held virtually on April 21 at 3 p.m. The honorees will have their names etched on a plaque to be displayed on the Judge’s bench at the Calaveras County Courthouse.

To learn more about First Five Calaveras and PCAC, visit PCAC meetings are held every odd month on the fourth Thursday from 3-5 p.m. in San Andreas.

This article is part of a three-part series on factors impacting the wellness of Calaveras County youth and families, and what the community can do to help. Upcoming articles will investigate the mental health of local youth and factors leading to child abuse, as well as what you can do to help.