School District officials believe some students left the county to live with relatives because of economic hardship. The district lost roughly 3% of students a decade ago after the recession.

Soon after distance learning began in late March, Marion County school officials could not locate 3,214 students, or 7.5% of the school district’s 43,000 K-12 enrollment.


Since then, the district has located 2,323 of those students. But there are still many who have all but vanished during the COVID-19 outbreak that closed campuses.


As of May 1, the district still can’t locate 891 students, or 2.1% of the district’s total enrollment. On any given day before the pandemic, about 7% of all students were absent daily.


Superintendent of Schools Heidi Maier and her administrative team believe one reason may be that some students have left the area with their parents to live in other counties or states.


Many parents lost jobs because of the COVID-19 outbreak and some had to move in with relatives, officials say.


In some cases, students were shipped off to out-of-area grandparents. Some parents still have jobs but can’t afford, or even find, child care while campuses are closed.


On Friday, Maier told the Star-Banner that the district has enrolled some students from other jurisdictions. Those students have moved in with grandparents, or other relatives, in Marion County.


Maier instructed staff to tell those Marion County grandparents that the new out-of-town students can still use distance learning programs offered by their grandchildren’s former school.


"However, most chose to still enroll the students here," she said.


The news of the missing students was briefly discussed during a School Board work session last week. The district further addressed the issue at Tuesday’s special School Board work session.


During Tuesday’s gathering, the School Board learned about all the efforts the school district has made to find all but 891 students.


David Ellers, the district’s director of students services, said there has been a protocol for teachers to reach students.


Teachers log all students who participate in distance learning as being present. Teachers log the students they speak to by phone about paper worksheets also as being present.


"At that point, if they have a student they are not able to reach after three attempts, they are required to report that to their administrator," Ellers told the board.


Ellers said the principal asks deans, counselors and other school-based administrators to make multiple attempts to reach the students and parents.


"If they are not able to reach that child, what we then do is hand this over to our social work assistants," Ellers noted.


Ellers said social workers then call all contact names and phone numbers in the student’s file. The social workers will also call neighbors or "anyone they can find to reach out to this child."


After those attempts are exhausted, the district sends officers from the Safe Schools department to the student’s last known address to see if they see kids in the yard or cars in the driveway.


"They are maintaining social distancing and not approaching houses," Ellers said. "But they are trying to see of there is somebody in the residence that could be answering some questions."


Ellers said that if a child cannot be reached in a two-week period, they are placed on the list of students who are missing.


"We will continue to work," said Ellers, who acknowledged all of the hard work of employees. "One student who we have not made contact with is one student too many."


School Board Chairman Eric Cummings said he received a video from Dennis McFatten, the district’s Safe Schools director, about the challenges reaching some of the homes when they go out to find students.


"He needed a monster truck to get where he was trying to get to," Cummings noted. "Some of these areas are so far up into the woods. You guys are doing an awesome job."


Board member Beth McCall said "some of them may have left the area."


"Some of them (families) are very transient," McCall said. "They will just pick up and leave and we don’t have any way of knowing it until we get back to the school and they are just a no show."


A similar thing happened a decade ago. In October 2007, just months before a recession struck the United States, Marion County Public Schools reached record enrollment of 43,123. At the time, enrollment had climbed by 3,000 students, or 7.9 percent, in just four years thanks to a thriving economy.


But when the recession struck, thousands of people lost jobs. Many people, especially younger parents with children, left the area. Some decided to go back home to live with family in other counties and states. They needed help during those sour economic times.


By October 2009, Marion’s K-12 public school enrollment dropped by 1,251 students, nearly 3 percent, to 41,872. Most of that decline occurred during the last part of the 2007-08 school year and all of the 2008-09.


— Contact Joe Callahan at 867-4113 or at joe.callahan@starbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.