Palm Beach County school leaders search for thousands of missing students

About 3,300 students classified as 'whereabouts unknown' during 2020-21 academic year
Posted at 5:56 AM, Mar 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-23 16:12:47-04

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Thousands of Palm Beach County students were discovered to be missing this school year.

They were enrolled in the school district, but were not attending classes either in-person or virtually.

School leaders said it's a major concern brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Case worker Tamara Armaly is on the phone from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. every night trying to find those missing students and get them back in school.

"It may have been that they've relocated due to COVID," Armaly said. "A lot of the time we've found that our juniors and seniors have stopped going to school so they can be a financial help to their families."

"Just saying 'whereabouts unknown' is scary because we do not know if that child is safe any longer. We have no clue," said Diane Wyatt, the director of the School District of Palm Beach County's Safe Schools program.

Wyatt said the school district started the 2020-21 academic year with about 3,300 students on that "whereabouts unknown" list. Now they've got about a third left.

Many are out of the area, going to school somewhere else, or homeschooling.

"Best case scenario is that it's a communication breakdown. Because what we would love finding is that the child is safe, the child is in school somewhere else in another state," Wyatt said.

But because of COVID-19, Wyatt said that's not always the case.

"Has the family lost their job? Do they have the supports? Are they homeless now? Is there violence happening that we aren't able to see because we don't get to look into the eyes of that child each day?" Wyatt said. "It's investigative work almost."

As that detective, Armaly can make more than 25 phone calls a night.

"Sometimes we can’t stop at mom or dad. Sometimes we have to go to grandma. Sometimes we have to go to aunt," Armaly said. "We are willing to put in that work to help wherever we can with getting them back into school."

"These are really folks that just got lost within the entire pandemic, the situation," said June Eassa, the assistant superintendent of Student Wellness for the School District of Palm Beach County. "Overwhelmed by the dynamics in their family, overwhelmed by financial burdens, overwhelmed by family members who were sick. And they just never really came back to us."

Through thousands of phone calls, the school district's reengagement team has brought more than 200 students back into Palm Beach County classrooms, both in-person and virtually. But leaders want to make sure that every seat is filled.

"They actually pick up the phone and call and say, Ms. Armaly, I'm at the school and I'm getting ready to register now," Armaly said. "So it makes us feel good that we are able to connect with these families."

It's those success stories that keep the team moving forward.

"It's just a wonderful feeling to know that we have a student who has been sitting out for a semester and we know is now engaged in our school system," Eassa said.

The reengagement team began this after-hours effort back in January and was planning for a two-month pilot program. But leaders said that because it's been so successful, the school district will fund the program for the rest of the year.

The team consists of five case workers who make phone calls from 4 p.m. 8 p.m. each evening. This is in addition to outreach they are doing during the day.

The School District of Palm Beach County has a variety of resources available to those who need support.

For the Department of Behavioral and Mental Health Services, you can call 561-982-0920.

The Safe Schools Department, which operates the reengagement program, can be reached at 561-653-5181. Support services are available for students doing both in-person and virtual learning. You can also find resources by clicking here.

WPTV checked with our other area counties to see if they are also experiencing the issue of missing students.

The Martin County School District said it does not have any missing students. The district said there are zero students enrolled since the beginning of the year who have not attended any days of school. The district has six students who have not attended school since the second semester began in early January. The Student Services Department is working with the schools and following the attendance protocols to work with students and their families.

St. Lucie Public Schools said it has a total of 70 students that officials have not been able to locate. A spokeswoman said efforts to reach the students include home visits to last known addresses, phone calls, and reaching out to known family and friends.

Dylan Tedders, the assistant superintendent for Administrative Services for the Okeechobee County School District, said the district currently has 11 students it has not been able to locate.

"Our administrators, school site and district, have been working to ensure students are accounted for since the beginning of the year. Phone calls and home visits have been the norm to try and get them back with the goal being face to face instruction. We've had students migrate to Home Education, Florida Virtual, Private schools, and some have, unfortunately, made the decision to drop-out," Tedders said in a written statement to WPTV.

The School District of Indian River County said 34 students are considered missing, and multiple efforts are being made by school and district personnel to located these students.