School districts across Florida are looking high and low for tens of thousands of students who apparently did not enroll in a public school this year, raising questions about truancy laws and a state budget mess.
The Florida Department of Education knows a few reasons why kids haven’t been in class during the COVID-19 pandemic, but not everything is clear at this point. And reasons vary from district to district.
Between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, Florida’s public school population has so far declined by nearly 70,000 students, according to state enrollment data. Those are the kids being called ‘missing,’ though a better phrase would be, ‘unaccounted for.’
What’s more, estimates of future enrollment for next academic year could be about 88,000 students fewer than previous projections, possibly putting a wrench in the 2021-22 state budget for education, one of the largest pieces in the state budget pie.
With the 2021 regular session of the Florida Legislature opening today, the state and school districts need answers in order for lawmakers to write a budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
State officials are putting pressure on districts to find thousands of students so they can know for sure who is and isn’t in the enrollment picture for public schools.
A letter from House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Republican who represents part of Pinellas County, made it clear to district superintendents that they are responsible for identifying just where these kids are.
“The welfare of these children is of paramount importance,” Sprowls wrote. “We have a moral obligation not to allow any of these children to slip through the cracks in the system.”
This we do know:
Due to COVID-19, many families looked to alternative learning options in their local school districts. Some opted for homeschooling and some took to the Florida Virtual School, an online learning platform for K-12 Florida students.
Others shifted to private schools and some are considered truant, which is against the law because students of certain ages must go to school.
Another huge consideration is that many families with kindergarten-aged kids opted to hold their students back this year in hopes that the COVID situation would calm down later. (Florida’s requirements for attending school start at age 6, so 5 year-old students wouldn’t be required to attend kindergarten.)
The number of families who waited to start kindergarten will not be known for sure until next academic year, but some counties are expecting a large kindergarten class in the 2021-22 school year.
Most districts will have a combination of these reasons.
Fiscal impact of these students
The state’s education budget largely depends on projected enrollment numbers for the coming academic year. To plan how to distribute money between districts, the Legislature normally trusts state analysts to crunch the numbers.
But this year, many families didn’t behave normally because of the COVID pandemic. They had to make decisions about sending their kids to brick-and-mortar schools, or learning online at home. Many families changed their mind over the course of the year.
These factors and many others make estimating for the next school year extremely difficult. Legislators likely will rely on enrollment numbers from this academic year to help form the 2021-22 education budget, Sprowls’s letter said.
Meaning that school districts need to have a solid understanding of where these students are if they want an appropriate amount of state funding.
Florida school districts are diverse, and each is dealing with its own struggles in accounting for these missing students. The answer will depend on where you ask the question.
Mike Roberts, chief information officer for the DeSoto County School District, said his district found a reduction in the number of migrant families, contributing at least partially to the enrollment decline.
“Some of our migrant children did not return this year, because the migrant population wasn’t moving as much due to the COVID situation,” Roberts said.
He told the Phoenix that migrant families travel between states for work, depending on what crops are in season. These families come to Florida in the fall to pick oranges and bell peppers but might leave during spring to work up north.
“Basically, what will happen is undocumented migrant workers will bring their children here and put their children in school. Even if they’re undocumented we will offer them education.”
This is common in Central Florida counties with big agricultural sectors, he said, and it happens every year.
“They come and go with seasonal migration,” Roberts told the Phoenix. “So, those students go ‘missing’ every year, but that’s a trend because of migrant farm workers.”
Still, COVID might have played a role. “Health care is an issue with these migrant farm workers, so they’re less likely to put their kids in a place where they can get sick,” he said.
Dylan Tedders, assistant superintendent of the Okeechobee County School District, said administrators have found all but 11 students out of more than 500 who were previously unaccounted for.
“We’ve been looking since the beginning of the year,” Tedders told the Phoenix.
As with most counties, a portion went to home-school options and some went out of district to the Florida Virtual School. The district also saw lower enrollment in kindergarten.
But about 50 students dropped out without formally notifying the district, he said.
These students leave for all kinds of reasons, including struggles with academics and taking a job to support their families. The DeSoto district is working to persuade drop-outs to return to classes.
“We’ve got some creative programs to try to help students that are behind or over-aged or just a few credits away,” Tedders said. “But at the end of the day … we can try to recruit as much as we can but sometimes making that paycheck or not being able to come to school for a seven-hour day — they end up making that unfortunate choice.”
In addition, DeSoto County saw a couple of its juvenile detention facilities shut down this year, and Tedders said that contributed to lower district enrollment.
The Phoenix reached out to the Department of Juvenile Justice to find out what would happen to the children at these facilities, but officials did not respond.
Options outside the district
Not every county struggled with enrollment numbers. In fact, some saw influxes of enrollment, particularly in their online options.
That’s what happened this year with Hendry County. According to state data, Hendry County schools appear to have gained more than 5,000 students, for a total of almost 13,500.
Superintendent Michael Swindle said that a large contributor to that was interest in an online charter school offered in the county called the Digital Academy of Florida.
“It’s not just Hendry County schools students enrolling,” he told the Phoenix. “It’s students statewide that are able to get on the DAOF platform.”
But even with enrollment up, that doesn’t mean that all students were accounted for.
In those cases, Hendry administrators were “getting in their vehicles and going to the homes and checking on the kids, getting them back in school or getting on our distance learning platforms,” Swindle said.
But even with total enrollment up, not every student reliably attends school, and the district needs to intervene.
Swindle explained that there is sometimes a “disconnect” in some families with students not being fully honest with parents about logging into their online learning platforms during the day.
“Often times, what you find is that there is a working parent and there’s a child sitting in front of a laptop when they leave to go to work, but the child is not logging into the school,” Swindle said. “When the parent comes home and asks their child how their day was the child says, ‘It was great.’”
When the district contacts the family and informs them of what’s going on, Swindle said, the families are usually able to sort out these difficulties.