Some Florida school districts are reporting thousands of students whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, students who have fallen off the school grid and haven’t shown up in class remain a problem for almost every school district in Florida.
In Polk County, 100 students are still unaccounted for.
In Miami Dade County, the state’s largest school district, the number of missing students was in the thousands last year but has been reduced down to just under 650, according to a district spokesperson.
But in some other large districts, the number of students districts can’t locate remains in the thousands.
In Palm Beach County, the school district is still trying to track down nearly 2,000 students. In Broward, the number is close to 10,000.
"Yeah, it's a lot and it’s concerning,” said Broward County school enrollment chief Jill Young.
It’s an issue that isn’t entirely new to schools. Students move schools, cities, states and even out of the country all the time and parents don’t always let their kids’ schools know when they’ve moved.
But when the pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020, many families also lost their household incomes. As a result, some students were forced to take on jobs to help their families make ends meet, and, nearly two years later, some of those students still haven’t returned back to campus.
Last year, statewide enrollment was down 3% from the year prior prompting the state’s Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls to send a letter to school districts urging them to “work with every available State and local resource to locate these missing kids,” he said in the letter dated Feb. 11, 2021.
Sprowls added, “we have a moral obligation to not allow any of these children to slip through the cracks.”
It’s unclear where student enrollment stands today in Florida public schools, but some larger school districts continue to report a drop in overall enrollment numbers.
How missing students contribute to this downward trend remains a question. As of Wednesday afternoon, Florida’s Department of Education could not provide the total statewide number of students across Florida who remain unaccounted for with their whereabouts unknown.
But for Palm Beach County, nearly 2,000 missing students is far more than they could have ever expected.
“It’s unfortunate that the situations became so dire for families that these kids aren’t in school,” explained Keith Oswald, who leads the Equity and Wellness Department for the Palm Beach County school district.
His team is making the hunt for missing students a top priority.
Recently, the district teamed up with the State Attorney’s office, the Department of Children & Families and the Department of Juvenile Justice to find its lost students. The district is also using COVID-19 relief funds to hire social workers and case managers and it recently hired an outside vendor who will also work to find students the district hasn’t been able to.
Other districts have and continue to knock on doors, searching for unaccounted for students.
“We do know from past experience that some of these students have left the country or have had to take on jobs to support their families during some really difficult circumstances,” Oswald explained.
He also said some students who live in homes with immunocompromised people may have also dropped off the grid out of concern for family safety amid the ongoing pandemic and limited distance learning options.
Once students are found, getting them back to the classroom may not be so easy. The district is preparing to take drastic measures if necessary.
“If we find families and parents are refusing to send their kids to school then we do have to put a truancy packet together and take these parents to court. We hope it doesn’t get to that point but we are preparing,” Oswald said. “We are not in the blame game. We just need to provide these families support, get to the root cause, get the support in place and get a family back on track."