Many school districts across the country have reported big downturns in attendance as they've shifted to remote learning. Some students have dropped off the map entirely.



Many school districts have reported big drop-offs in attendance as they have shifted to remote learning this year. Some students have dropped off the map entirely. In response, some schools have been calling, texting, even knocking on doors to try to connect with students. Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg reports from one school district where some students have come back.

ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: Early on a chilly Tuesday morning, Dirigo High School Teacher Rachel Buck drives across her small district in western Maine, her car loaded up with boxes.


RACHEL BUCK: Today, I am delivering school materials, some food, canned goods.

FEINBERG: Buck isn't scheduled to teach for another two hours. But as the district's remote learning coordinator, she's going from doorstep to doorstep, distributing supplies to students she may not have seen in person for weeks or months.


BUCK: Hello.


BUCK: There you go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter) Thank you.

BUCK: Thank you.

FEINBERG: The weather is brisk, so the visits today are quick. Buck drops off the materials and answers a few questions, like one from a mom deciding whether to keep her kids remote or send them back to school. Buck promises she'll follow up.


BUCK: Let me double check. I'll be in touch later.




BUCK: Thank you.

FEINBERG: Even though these visits may only take a few minutes, school administrators say they've become a critical tool for keeping families connected to school and reengaging students struggling with remote and hybrid learning.

PAM DOYEN: It's a battle for sure when they choose to be virtual and then don't Zoom into classes. And it's hard to find them sometimes.

FEINBERG: That's Dirigo High School Principal Pam Doyen. She says after just a few weeks of classes this fall, the school saw that dozens of students had disappeared, meaning they weren't showing up to remote Zoom classes or responding to communication. Doyen says the school formed a small group to get them back on track.

DOYEN: So we've done calls, texts, emails, home visits, home delivery of materials. We've scheduled multiple parent meetings, including evening hours that work best for parents, to talk about, you know, your kid's not showing up for their Zoom's.

FEINBERG: Doyen says the school worked to connect families with basic needs, like food and heating assistance. Rachel Buck says she saw during her first few deliveries that even a quick face-to-face interaction helped families to trust her and made it easier to work together to get their children to show up to class.

BUCK: Whatever way districts are able to reach out and connect with their families in their community, it is putting action behind the words I care about your kid's education. It's a way to concretely look at it and say, yeah, they do care, they really do.

FEINBERG: Administrators acknowledge that the texts and visits haven't fixed everything. But their list of students who've disappeared has gone from a few dozen this fall to just a handful now. High school sophomore Mason Ducharme lost interest when the school went remote last fall. And without athletics, he wasn't motivated to keep his grades up.

MASON DUCHARME: I just didn't do anything. I just sat in my room, like, all day. And I didn't do any work. I didn't attend any classes, so I was falling behind.

FEINBERG: But after getting bombarded with texts and phone calls, Ducharme met with his teachers and got back to work. He's now mostly caught up.

DUCHARME: I'm very thankful to have them and having, like, them, like, reach out and say, like, we care about you. We really want you to, like, succeed in life. We want you to be here.

FEINBERG: Ducharme says he doesn't want to miss class now. He knows that if he does slack off, his teachers will hunt him down again.

For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAY FOR SOUND'S "YOUNG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.