Wisconsin public schools down 23K students: Are they missing class?

Some Wisconsin students may have gone off the schooling grid during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the state doesn't know how many.

Wisconsin's public school headcounts dropped 23,000 students comparing September 2019 and September 2020, raising the question: Are some of them missing school?

Public schools in Wisconsin count their students every September.

The numbers dipped by 0.4% each year from 2017 to 2019, but from 2019 to 2020 alone, the number dropped by nearly 3%. Driving that, a 15% drop in 4-K and preschool special ed.

"When faced with the choice of potentially remote kindergarten or remote pre-K, whereas in many places child care centers or child care options were open and serving children in person, I think a lot of parents may have chosen either to look after their children themselves at home, to send their child to a child care center or some other service child care option that was in person," said Bonnie O'Keefe with Bellwether Education Partner.

Factoring just first through 12th grades, the cut was about 2%.

Researchers at Bellwether Education Partners this past fall estimated 3 million kids nationwide may have stopped receiving formal education. They estimate between 770 and roughly 20,000 Wisconsin kids were at risk.

"Some students may have returned to the workplace, some may have been supervising younger children, others may not be in a safe situation at home. The issue of not having Wi-Fi at home obviously also has gotten a lot of attention," O'Keefe said.

As first reported by conservative group Empower Wisconsin, Milwaukee's Bryant Elementary reports they worked:

"Diligently to contact approximately 25% of the student body without success. Social workers have tried letters that are returned, phone calls/numbers don’t exist. b) Should these students be considered 'virtual' by default?"

Milwaukee Public Schools administration responded to that school's question:

"The default for attending is virtual. Any students who do not provide a selection choice or are new to the district will be placed in a virtual instructional platform."

State Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) questions the state's Department of Public Instruction. 

In letters Kooyenga's office shared with FOX6 News, the Department of Public Instruction told the senator they'd have snapshot data in December 2021.

"Basically the response back from DPI was we won’t know the magnitude of the problem until next December, which the moment is now," said Kooyenga. "There’s a lot of COVID dollars out there. We should have a sense of accountability, not only because of taxpayer accountability, and being good stewards of funds, but, also, if you care for someone, whether that be relative, a neighbor or a friend, if you can’t find them, the right thing to do is to have accountability and find them and take action."

The Kenosha Unified School District said it took action after schools closed in March 2020.

"The concentrated efforts really were on reaching the students, making home visits, even if necessary, we had some staff that would even deliver devices if necessary to try to support those learning needs," said Kris Keckler, KUSD chief information officer. "But there were some students, it just was unfortunate, their summers started March 13."

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DPI told FOX6 that attendance policies are set by local school boards, and it is those districts working with students and monitoring attendance and performance.

Soon, Wisconsin schools will have some federal help -- $2.2 billion, including nearly $800 million for Milwaukee Public Schools.

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