School district workers fan out in search of Jacksonville students

District employees say it’s about reaching unaccounted-for students, not discipline

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Laura Chiarello, Duval County Public Schools social work supervisor, and Vamecia Powell, a truancy supervisor, usually spend the start of the school year tracking down missing students.

Year after year, the districts’ schools hand over a list of students with whom they’ve been unable to touch base. This year, though, that list had a staggering 9,700 names on it.

“It’s a whole different ball game than it’s been in the past,” Chiarello said.

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The big difference: novel coronavirus. This week marks the second week of in-person classes since the pandemic shut down classrooms in March. The district eventually moved to Duval HomeRoom, an online learning platform, to wrap up the school year.

“The major difference is parents might think they received laptops in March and that it’s just a continuation, but there is a registration process that they have to go through to be able to get their kids back in either brick and mortar or online,” Powell said.

“Unfortunately, online is closed at this time, so our main focus is to get them back in the building.”

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Chiarellos’ staff of 28 social workers and Powell’s 11 truancy officers have turned their focus solely to finding students who have not shown up to class yet.

Social workers and truancy officers spend the day cold-calling the numbers on file for missing students. And if they have no luck by phone, they make house calls.

“They are working very diligently, all day long,” Chiarello said. “I told them everything is on hold until we get these kids back in schools and find out what’s going on and removing the barrier. If it’s a laptop, internet, they need a school uniform, school supplies, we are able to provide those support services.”

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So far, the teams — with the help of school personnel — have been able to locate roughly half of the students who had not made contact with the school district since March. As of Monday morning, the district was trying to find 5,125 students.

“What we found is some families didn’t realize their kids needed to come back to school,” Chiarello said. “Some said they will come back to school when they get their things together. Some families have moved. A lot of parents are stressed out and they have a lot of personal things going on and education is, unfortunately, not one of their priorities.”

Asked about discipline and consequences for parents who have not yet enrolled their student in school or contacted the district, Powell said at this point they are only worried about connecting with unaccounted students — not punishing them.

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“We don’t send the truancy officers out with badges,” Powell said. “Nothing other than: ’Here, this is an added level of support. I’m here at your door to give you support and all the information you need to get back engaged.’”

One large hurdle in tracking down students is outdated contact information. Typically, that means employees call and don’t get an answer or they find out it’s a wrong number.

“Often times, that’s a big barrier,” Powell said.

Duval County Public Schools is asking parents — not enrolled in Duval Virtual School, Duval HomeRoom or attending in-person — to first call your students’ last school or the district office to give them an update. Schools officials are also asking parents to provide updated contact information to the district.

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