4 Investigates: Thousands of NM students listed as chronically absent during pandemic | KOB 4

4 Investigates: Thousands of NM students listed as chronically absent during pandemic

Chris Ramirez
Updated: January 14, 2021 10:22 PM
Created: January 14, 2021 06:07 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- Now that we are ten months into this pandemic, parents understand the struggles their children face each day participating in virtual learning. Parents across New Mexico have seen their children disengage and in many cases not participate in learning at all. The KOB 4 Investigates team sent out a records request to every New Mexico school district requesting attendance data.  The information that came back reveals more than 22,000 students statewide have been listed as chronically absent, or missing more than 20% of instructional time.


In our request, KOB also asked school districts how they are working to bring students back into learning.  The methods are wide-ranging from involving law enforcement and CYFD to calls to parents to administrators literally going door to door looking for students. 

That’s how Mountainair Public Schools Superintendent Dawn Apodaca approaches the problem. On a Tuesday in December, we followed her as she went from house to house, rewarding students with a certificate for doing well.

“We are here because we are proud of you!” Superintendent Apodaca told one elementary age girl at her doorway.  “You have transitioned from remote back to hybrid back to remote seamlessly, you are doing a terrific job!”

But Apodaca also checks in with students who have missed classes or are failing.

“Good morning, can we check on Michael?  He hasn't been in class for four days,” a member of Apodaca’s team asked a Mountainair mother.

The mother reported her first grader lost the jetpack that provides internet connectivity, and she can’t find some of his textbooks. And she admits to the school administrators, she too is struggling. 

“I've been really sick, I don't know what it is,” the mother tells them.  “I get nauseous in the car and stuff.”

COVID-19 has turned Superintendent Apodaca into a part-time internet technician, part-time counselor and part-time detective.  She and her team are inside the homes of their students troubleshooting technical issues, providing support to stressed parents and in some cases trying to locate where a child may be on any given day.

The morning we followed Apodaca, we met student after student struggling to just get to their computer to log in to their virtual classrooms. 

“I think it's the lack of motivation,” said one student at his doorway.

“I don't like it,” said another student, who was laying on the couch wrapped in a blanket at a time when he was supposed to be logged into his class. 

“Nobody gets to see what's really happening and the hardship that our families are going through in remote learning,” Supt. Apodaca told us.  “This is hard.  This is hard for all of us.”

The scenes in Mountainair are playing out in every city and town across New Mexico. 

Depth of the Problem

With a large percentage of school districts responding to our records request, we calculated more than 22,000 students were reported as chronically absent. Some of the more concerning areas include Albuquerque, where administrators report more than 2,000 students have referred to ENGAGE New Mexico, a non-profit that works to track down missing or disengaged students.  Aztec Municipal School District reported 48% of the student population is listed as chronically absent, Tularosa Municipal Schools reports 32% and Santa Fe reports 29%.

And the NM Public Education Department reports 5,900 students are totally unaccounted for.  They simply cannot be found.  It’s possible some of those student may have moved and never notified their school districts, but it's also possible they're part of New Mexico's most vulnerable populations; the homeless or kids who live in shelters. 

At this moment, most students in New Mexico are learning from home.  That in itself contradicts what the nation’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said in November 2020 in an interview with ABC News.

“Close the bars and keep the schools open is what we really say,” Dr. Fauci told ABC News.  “You don't have one size fits all, but as I've said in the past and as you accurately quoted me, the default position should be to try the best as possible, within reason, to keep the children in school.”

NM PED’s take 
A concern raised by both teachers and parents is that the State’s Public Education Department has focused heavily on the singular issue of COVID-19 when defining a student’s health, but not taking into enough consideration what virtual learning is doing to a child’s mental health.

“I think that’s a really important argument and certainly fair,” said Dep. Secretary Gwen Perea Warniment, New Mexico Public Education Department. “I do feel like from our position, we take very seriously, the health and wellness of a child. In fact, that's in our mission. Our vision includes whole child education and that does include socio-emotional aspects, the entire health of the student, because that is what enables a successful education. So I do feel like that's a fair criticism, however, we are doing everything that we can to support those students.”
Deputy Secretary Perea Warniment said NMPED is taking guidance on re-opening schools from the state’s Health Department.

“It's always our intention actually, to get students back into classes as soon as we can. Our guidance, even from June, is really set forward in terms of students back in the classroom and in a face to face environment. We all know that that's the best possible thing for students. We are simply really leaning on and trusting our Department of Health colleagues.

Under the public health orders governing COVID-19 restrictions, school districts in red counties must remain virtual, those in yellow counties may move into a hybrid model and those in green may move into classroom learning. After the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, micro districts and those that were in hybrid before can return to a hybrid model.  

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