ATLANTA – It’s unclear to Tameka how — or even when — her children became unenrolled from Atlanta Public Schools. But it was traumatic when, in fall 2021, they figured out it had happened.

After more than a year of some form of pandemic online learning, students were all required to come back to school in person. Tameka was deeply afraid of COVID-19 and skeptical the schools could keep her kids safe. One morning, in a test run, she sent two kids to school.

Her oldest daughter, then in seventh grade, and her second youngest, a boy entering first grade, boarded their respective buses. She had yet to register the youngest girl, who was entering kindergarten. And her older son, a boy with Down syndrome, stayed home because she wasn’t sure he could consistently wear masks.

After a few hours, the elementary school called: Come pick up your son, they told her. He was no longer enrolled, they said.

Around lunchtime, the middle school called: Come get your daughter, they told her. She doesn’t have a class schedule.

Tameka’s children — all four of them — have been home ever since.

Obstacles on the road back to school

Thousands of students went missing from American classrooms during the pandemic. For some who have tried to return, a serious problem has presented itself. A corrosive combination of onerous re-enrollment requirements, arcane paperwork and the everyday obstacles of poverty — a nonworking phone, a missing backpack, the loss of a car — is in many cases preventing those children from going back.

“One of the biggest problems that we have is kids that are missing and chronic absenteeism,” says Pamela Herd, a Georgetown University public policy professor. She studies how burdensome paperwork and processes often prevent poor people from accessing health benefits. “I’m really taken aback that a district would set forth a series of policies that make it actually quite difficult to enroll your child.”

In Atlanta, where Tameka lives, parents must present at least eight documents to enroll their children — twice as many as parents in New York City or Los Angeles. One of the documents — a complicated certificate evaluating a child’s dental health, vision, hearing, and nutrition — is required by the state. Most of the others are Atlanta’s doing, including students’ Social Security cards and an affidavit declaring residency that has to be notarized.

The district asks for proof of residency for existing students every year at some schools, and also before beginning sixth and ninth grades, to prevent students from attending schools outside of their neighborhoods or communities. The policy also allows the district to request proof the student still lives in the attendance zone after an extended absence or many tardy arrivals. Without that proof, families say their children have been disenrolled.

“They make it so damned hard,” says Kimberly Dukes, an Atlanta parent who co-founded an organization to help families advocate for their children.

During the pandemic, she and her children became homeless and moved in with her brother. She struggled to convince her children’s school they really lived with him. Soon, she heard from other caregivers having similar problems. Last year, she estimates she helped 20 to 30 families re-enroll their children in Atlanta Public Schools.

The school district pushed back against this characterization of the enrollment process. “When parents inform APS that they are unable to provide updated proof of residence, protocols are in place to support families,” Atlanta communications director Seth Coleman wrote by email. Homeless families are not required to provide documentation, he said.

Tameka’s kids have essentially been out of school since COVID hit in March 2020. She and her kids have had a consistent place to live, but nearly everything else in their lives collapsed during the pandemic. (Tameka is her middle name. The Associated Press is withholding her full name because Tameka, 33, runs the risk of jail time or losing custody of her children since they are not in school.)

A blue and white illustration showing a woman holding a piece of paper sitting on a couch. A window with curtains in the background.
Illustration depicting Tameka. A corrosive combination of re-enrollment requirements, arcane paperwork and the everyday obstacles of poverty is keeping children out of schools. (Illustration Peter Hamlin/AP)

Echoes of a partner’s death

Tameka’s longtime partner, who was father to her children, died of a heart attack in May 2020 as COVID gripped the country.

His death left her overwhelmed and penniless. Tameka never graduated from high school and has worked occasionally as a security guard or a housecleaner for hotels. She has never gotten a driver’s license. But her partner worked construction and had a car. “When he was around, we never went without,” she says.

Suddenly, she had four young children to care for by herself, with only government cash assistance to live on.

Schools had closed to prevent the spread of the virus, and the kids were home with her all the time. Remote learning didn’t hold their attention. Their home internet didn’t support the three children being online simultaneously, and there wasn’t enough space in their two-bedroom apartment for the kids to have a quiet place to learn.

Because she had to watch them, she couldn’t work. The job losses put her family even further below the median income for a Black family in Atlanta — $28,105. (The median annual income for a white family in the city limits is $83,722.)

When Tameka’s children didn’t return to school, she also worried about the wrong kind of attention from the state’s child welfare department. According to Tameka, staff visited her in Spring 2021 after receiving calls from the school complaining her children were not attending online classes.

The social workers interviewed the children, inspected their home and looked for signs of neglect and abuse. They said they’d be back to set her up with resources to help her with parenting. For more than two years, she says, “they never came back.”

When the kids missed 10 straight days of school that fall, the district removed them from its rolls, citing a state regulation. Tameka now had to re-enroll them.

Suddenly, another tragedy of her partner’s death became painfully obvious. He was carrying all the family’s important documents in his backpack when he suffered his heart attack. The hospital that received him said it passed along the backpack and other possessions to another family member, Tameka says. But it was never found.

The backpack contained the children’s birth certificates and her own, plus Medicaid cards and Social Security cards. Slowly, she has tried to replace the missing documents. First, she got new birth certificates for the children, which required traveling downtown.

After asking for new Medicaid cards for over a year, she finally received them for two of her children. She says she needs them to take her children to the doctor for the health verifications and immunizations required to enroll. It’s possible her family’s cards have been held up by a backlog in Georgia’s Medicaid office since the state agency incorrectly disenrolled thousands of residents.

When she called for a doctor’s appointment in October, the office said the soonest they could see her children was December.

“That’s too late,” she said. “Half the school year will be over by then.”

She also needs to show the school her own identification, Social Security cards, and a new lease, plus the notarized residency affidavit.

She shakes her head. “It’s a lot.”

Calls from the school — to a disconnected phone

Some of the enrollment requirements have exceptions buried deep in school board documents. But Tameka says no one from the district has offered her guidance.

Contact logs provided by the district show social workers from three schools have sent four emails and called the family 19 times since the pandemic closed classrooms in 2020. Most of those calls went to voicemail or didn’t go through because the phone was disconnected. Records show Tameka rarely called back.

The only face-to-face meeting was in October 2021, when Tameka sent her kids on the bus, only to learn they weren’t enrolled. A school social worker summarized the encounter: “Discussed students’ attendance history, the impact it has on the student and barriers. Per mom student lost father in May 2020 and only other barrier is uniforms.”

The social worker said the school would take care of the uniforms. “Mom given enrollment paperwork,” the entry ends.

The school’s logs don’t record any further attempts to contact Tameka.

“Our Student Services Team went above and beyond to help this family and these children,” wrote Coleman, the district spokesperson.

Inconsistent cell phone access isn’t uncommon among low-income Americans. Many have phones, as Tameka’s family does, but when they break or run out of prepaid minutes, communication with them becomes impossible.

So in some cities, even at the height of the pandemic, social workers, teachers, and administrators checked on families in person when they were unresponsive or children had gone missing from online learning. In Atlanta, Coleman said, the district avoided in-person contact because of the coronavirus.

Tameka says she’s unaware of any outreach from Atlanta schools. She currently lacks a working phone with a cell plan, and she’s spent long stretches over the last three years without one. An Associated Press reporter has had to visit the family in person to communicate.

The logs provided by Atlanta Public Schools show only one attempt to visit the family in person, in Spring 2021. A staff member went to the family’s home to discuss poor attendance in online classes by the son with Down syndrome. No one was home, and the logs don’t mention further attempts.

The details of what the district has done to track down and re-enroll Tameka’s children, especially her son with Down syndrome, matter. Federal laws require the state and district to identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities until they turn 21.

A young girl with dark hair and wearing a pink jacket stands to the left of her mom who has dark and blonde hair and waring a black and gold outfit. A door is in the background.
Tameka and her 8-year-old daughter talk on their porch in Atlanta on Dec. 5, 2023, about when she might start school. The little girl should be in second grade but has never attended school. (Bianca Vázquez Toness/AP)

One government agency has been able to reach Tameka. A new social worker from the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, the same agency that came years earlier, made another visit to her home in October.

The department offered to organize a ride for her and her children to visit the doctor. But without an appointment, Tameka didn’t see the point.

The social worker also shared a helpful tip: Tameka can enroll her children with most of the paperwork, and then she would have 30 days to get the immunizations. But she should act fast, the social worker urged, or the department might have to take action against her for “educational neglect.”

A complex history works against parents

To many observers, Tameka’s troubles stem from Atlanta’s rapid gentrification. The city, known for its Black professional class, also boasts the country’s largest wealth disparity between Black and white families.

“It looks good from the curb, but when you get inside, you see that Black and brown people are worse off economically than in West Virginia — and no one wants to talk about it,” says Frank Brown, who heads Communities in Schools of Atlanta, an organization that runs dropout-prevention programs in Atlanta Public Schools.

Atlanta’s school board passed many of its enrollment policies and procedures back in 2008, after years of gentrification and a building boom consolidated upper-income and mostly white residents in the northern half of the city. The schools in those neighborhoods complained of “overcrowding,” while the schools in the majority Black southern half of the city couldn’t fill all of their seats.

The board cracked down on “residency fraud” to prevent parents living in other parts of town from sending their children to schools located in those neighborhoods.

“This was about balancing the number of students in schools,” says Tiffany Fick, director of school quality and advocacy for Equity in Education, a policy organization in Atlanta. “But it was also about race and class.”

Communities such as St. Louis, the Massachusetts town of Everett, and Tupelo, Mississippi, have adopted similar policies, including tip lines to report neighbors who might be sending their children to schools outside of their enrollment zones.

But the Atlanta metro area seems to be a hotbed, despite the policies’ disruption of children’s educations. In January, neighboring Fulton County disenrolled nearly 400 students from one of its high schools after auditing residency documents after Christmas vacation.

The policies were designed to prevent children from attending schools outside of their neighborhood. But according to Dukes and other advocates, the increased bureaucracy has also made it difficult for the poor to attend their assigned schools — especially after the pandemic hit families with even more economic stress.

Other Atlanta parents face similar battles

The Associated Press spoke to five additional Atlanta public school mothers who struggled with the re-enrollment process. Their children were withdrawn from school because their leases had expired or were month to month, or their child lacked vaccinations.

Candace, the mother of a seventh grader with autism, couldn’t get her son a vaccination appointment when schools first allowed students to return in person in Spring 2021. There were too many other families seeking shots at that time, and she didn’t have reliable transportation to go further afield. The boy, then in fourth grade, missed a cumulative five months.

“He wasn’t in school, and no one cared,” said Candace, who asked AP not to use her last name because she worries about losing custody of her child since he missed so much school. She eventually re-enrolled him with the help of Dukes, the parent advocate.

Many parents who have struggled with the enrollment policies have had difficulty persuading schools to accept their proof of residency. Adding an extra burden to those who don’t own their homes, Atlanta’s policy allows principals to ask for additional evidence from renters.

Shawndrea Gay was told by her children’s school, which is located in an upper-income neighborhood, that her month-to-month lease was insufficient. Twice, investigators came to her studio apartment to verify that the family lived there. “They looked in the fridge to make sure there was food,” she says. “It was no joke.”

Then, in Summer 2022, the school unenrolled her children because their lease had expired. With Dukes’ help, Gay was able to get them back in school before classes started.

A young girl with dark hair and wearing a pink coat bends over to tie her shoe and looks up at the camera smiling.
Tameka's 8-year-old daughter ties her shoe before running out to play. (AP Photo/Bianca Vázquez Toness) (Bianca Vázquez Toness/AP)

Tameka hasn’t reached out for help getting her kids back in school. She doesn’t feel comfortable asking and doesn’t trust the school system, especially after they called the child welfare department. “I don’t like people knowing my business,” she says. “I’m a private person.”

On a typical school day, Tameka’s four children — now 14, 12, 9, and 8 — sleep late and stay inside watching television or playing video games. Only the youngest — the girl who’s never been to school — has much interest in the outside world, Tameka says.

The girl often plays kickball or runs outside with other kids in their low-income subdivision. But during the week, she has to wait for them to come home from school at around 3 p.m.

The little girl should be in second grade, learning to master chapter books, spell, and add and subtract numbers up to 100. She has had to settle for “playing school” with her three older siblings. She practices her letters and writes her name. She runs through pre-kindergarten counting exercises on a phone.

But even at 8, she understands that it’s not the real thing.

“I want to go to school,” she says, “and see what it’s like.”

The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.