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Chicago School Staff Will Visit 18,000 Students Who Detached During The Pandemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Schools across the country prepare to return to full-time, in-person learning. They're trying to find ways to reengage students who became disconnected during the pandemic. In Chicago, public school officials are taking a literal approach to FaceTime to try to help remedy the problem. Sarah Karp of member station WBEZ reports.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: Like many teachers, Mueze Bawany says there were some students that he didn't see regularly in his online classes. Some were just unable to focus on a screen for long and showed up irregularly. Others simply had competing things going on in their lives. Bawany says, as a high school teacher, he tried his best to parse those issues.

MUEZE BAWANY: Trying to figure out how many of our students were filtering in and speaking about real issues, right? So like, hey, it's hard for me to work because I am taking care of a sibling, or it's hard for me to be in class because I have to get a job.

KARP: Bawany teaches at a neighborhood high school of mostly Latino students from disadvantaged families. It's in a part of Chicago with extremely high COVID numbers. Like other school districts across the country, Chicago Public Schools is confronting an acute problem. The number of students showing up to classes regularly plummeted, while those failing their courses shot up. A school district analysis shows some 18,000 students became very disengaged during the pandemic, and another 80,000 were somewhat checked out. Sherly Chavarria is the head of teaching and learning for Chicago Public Schools.

SHERLY CHAVARRIA: The pandemic has had an uneven impact on students in various ways, exacerbating racial disparities that already existed in our communities.

KARP: Chavarria and other district officials are launching a plan to try to get these students reengaged and back into class. Chicago Public Schools will spend more than $200 million in federal COVID relief money to target them. The school district will go door to door to each of the 18,000 disengaged students. Michael Deuser is leading that effort.

MICHAEL DEUSER: We give ourselves the best possible chance and be able to say that we've done all that we can to try to connect with every single student that's out there.

KARP: Those students who struggled less will get phone calls. The National League of Cities studied how school districts across the country are trying to reengage students. On a smaller scale, lots of them are sending staff to homes to stand on porches and try and determine what would prevent students from returning to in-person school. Other school districts are pouring money into robust summer and afterschool programs. Experts say calling and visiting homes is a good first step, but school districts also need to tackle achievement. Studies have shown that when high school students get way behind, they're more likely to drop out. Adelric McCain works for a University of Chicago program partnering with neighborhood high schools.

ADELRIC MCCAIN: Reaching out to students and saying, hey, listen; you're not falling through the cracks.

KARP: McCain advocates abandoning permanent failing marks on student records and instead encouraging them to make up the work. That would be welcome news for Catlyn Savado, who says she struggled in math last year. She's hoping that her next math class doesn't just plow forward but focuses on reteaching.

CATLYN: Making sure that all students are, like, OK and that they understand.

KARP: Chicago Public School officials say the home visits and phone calls over the summer are just the first step. They're also planning to hire 850 new tutors to help students get through classes, offering credit recovery at every high school and setting up mental health programs, all in an effort to make going back to school much more appealing than online learning.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Karp in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK OCEAN FEAT. JOHN MAYER'S "WHITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.