Vulnerable students disappearing from radar during school closures

After schools closed due to the Corona pandemic, many schools have lost contact with some of their students, as revealed by the Association of Dutch Municipalities (VNG). Many students did not show up for online classes or respond to phone calls from the school. Most of these students are classified as vulnerable.

The extent of the problem
Since the school closure, primary and secondary schools have reportedly lost contact with about 5,000 students. This estimate was made by the General Association of School Leaders (AVS) based on a poll among school leaders. It is thought, however, that the real number is even higher.

Who are the vulnerable students?
The Minister for Primary and Secondary Education and Media, Arie Slob, explained the problem in a recent letter to parliament. There are largely three groups of vulnerable students: students who do not have access to the internet and other necessary learning equipment, such as a computer; students who do not receive enough guidance at home; and students living in unsafe homes. Schools and municipalities are the most concerned with the last group of students, because they are the most difficult to track down.

The pandemic has exacerbated the inequality that exists in the education system. Students who were already at risk of educational disadvantage are expected to suffer the most. This is because they normally do not have a computer to work on, their parents are unable to help, and they do not have a quiet space to do their schoolwork – or a combination of the three.

Hidden poverty or neglect has become painfully visible during video lessons. Teachers see students take lessons in their pajamas, sitting in bed surrounded by little brothers and sisters, huddled under tables, or in front of moldy walls.

Sadly, most of these students are children of parents who do not speak Dutch, parents with whom it is already difficult to communicate. Some of the schools have discovered that children of migrant workers have gone back to their countries, like Poland or Bulgaria, without any notification.

Emergency shelters
According to the Association of Dutch Municipalities, 70 to 80 percent of municipalities has arranged emergency childcare for vulnerable students. However, the VNG has yet to establish how many vulnerable children in the Netherlands are currently using the emergency childcare system.

According to a spokesperson for the Association, the number varies from a few children in a small municipality to 150 in a larger city. The spokesperson expected those numbers to increase in the near future, because not all children are in the picture at the moment. Neighbourhood social care teams and youth and family coaches play a central role in determining, together with the schools, which pupils are eligible for emergency care.

Solving the problem
Apart from emergency chlidcare, Minister Slob has agreed with the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht to send school attendance officers to pay home visits. “Because it has been difficult to reach some students, we are going to use education officials to pay them a visit,” said Hilbert Bredemeijer, spokesperson of the Ministry of Education.

School boards list the students who are hard to get in touch with, and they ring the school’s compulsory education department for assistance. “Our employees call parents and send letters in five different languages to encourage parents to contact the school immediately,” said Bredemeijer. It was not yet clear whether other municipalities would follow suit. Minister Slob is still holding discussions about this.

Some schools are taking an energetic approach when no contactias established. One example of this is OSB, a large secondary school in Amsterdam Bijlmer. If a student does not attend online class several times and their mentor is unable to get in touch, the school sends a youth worker to their home. “The youth workers offer help and there are now 10 to 15 students attending school every day due to this approach,” says school director Maryse Knook.

Some teachers are also taking the pragmatic approach of calling the students. If they don’t answer, they would ring their parents. They discovered that some of the students are not attending the online classes because their families are suffering financial problems. Instead, parents are sending their kids to work, now that they don’t have to go to school. This offers a dilemma for the teachers: they of course tell the students that school is important, but they also understand that these students cannot do anything about their family situation.

Fortunately for these students, primary schools will partially reopen on 11 May, making it easier for schools to keep tabs on the most vulnerable students and preventing them from falling behind further with their schoolwork.

Written by Stephen Swai