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Education
In this statewide project, journalists explore the high costs of the pandemic for children and young adults. The project is supported in part by the Hammer Family Charitable Foundation and the Education Writers Association.

Class of COVID-19: Checking In On A Student Trying To Make Up Months Of Missed Classes

 Lilia Francois, a social worker with Broward County Public Schools, has dedicated herself during the COVID-19 pandemic to keeping track of students who've missed a lot of class time or to finding those who stopped going altogether.
Lilia Francois, a social worker with Broward County Public Schools, has dedicated herself during the COVID-19 pandemic to keeping track of students who've missed a lot of class time or to finding those who stopped going altogether.

Thousands of students in Florida stopped showing up for school during the coronavirus pandemic. In many districts, employees are working to bring them back.

Hundreds of students in Florida's second-largest school district stopped going to class during the pandemic. Some have switched districts without informing their schools, some didn't have computers or internet access and others had to stay home to take care of siblings.

Lilia Francois, one of the Broward County Public Schools social workers, has been working to bring them back.

Francois's efforts were part of our the Class of COVID-19 project looking at how the pandemic has affected the most vulnerable students in Florida. Months later, Francois is back in the same place we joined her previously — standing in front of a student's door.

Marjory, a tenth grader whose last name we're withholding to protect her privacy, missed many months of her freshman and sophomore years. When WLRN first spoke with her in December, when she hadn't been to class in nine months. Now, she's back in school, but "she started off shaky," Francois said.

When Marjory opened the door, Francois greeted her warmly, but then came right out with it — she was not happy with her attendance.

"I checked your attendance," Francois told her. "You missed 11 days just the first month that you signed up. What happened?"

Marjory said she hasn’t had wifi at home but she’ll start going to her new school in person soon.

"At home you know we have all of the distractions," Francois said. "So you know you’re gonna go [to the school] from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., you focus, you do what you need to do and then you come home, you’re free."

Marjory had been enrolled in a Broward County public high school, but after missing class all those months during the pandemic, in early February she enrolled in a charter school. It's only half days, so the students can also have jobs.

"I also got a life coach to help me," Marjory said, smiling. "She calls me every week to see how I’m doing. And she just ... she’s checking on my grades.

"Educators take away the cell phones, so this way the students are more focused," said Marjory's mom, María, in Spanish. That was one reason she chose this school for her daughter. WLRN is also withholding María's name for her privacy.

Then Francois lists the courses Marjory needs to take so that she may then rejoin her class at the traditional high school — English 3, science classes including biology and chemistry, algebra 1, geometry.

"You’re gonna keep watching those grades and I’m gonna keep watching your attendance," Francois said, in an encouraging tone.

Marjory said she's grateful to have Francois encouraging her to remain dedicated to her education.

"I think it’s nice that she’s very ... 'pendiente de mi,'" she said, trying to find the words in English. "It’s kind of nice having someone who puts you ... well I have a mom, too!"

Marjory's last comment brings a laugh to the group. Francois also makes sure to credit María, Marjory's mom.

"She’s lucky to have you," she told her. "She really is."

After María and Marjory hug, Francois reminds Marjory to make sure to go to school.

"The attendance is still a little issue for me, but we’re working on that. Rome was not built in one day," Francois said. "You’re in [the Class of 2023]. What are you gonna do? Walking across the stage. When they call your name, 'Marjory, yay!' You are going to be a success story, we know that. I know that in my heart that you will. The Marjory I saw in December is a different Marjory today. Continue, continue, okay?"

Marjory thanks her for coming, and for handing over a little gift, and closes the door.

In December, Francois had visited dozens of families like Marjory's — trying to find students who'd stopped going to school. Now, that's slowed down.

"Kids are returning back in person," she said. "I have time to meet with the kids, to sit to work with the team, the guidance counselor, administrators, family therapists."

Getting kids back in school is one thing, but keeping them there requires a lot of follow up and, sometimes, what Francois calls "incentives." Those incentives are things like the gift card she gave Marjory, which she pays for with her own money.

"Yes, yes," Francois said, smiling. "The gift card was not a lot. It could be $5. They see that [we] made a deal, and I held my word."

The ultimate prize for Marjory will come in spring 2023 when she walks across the graduation stage.
Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.