Marion schools searching for ‘missing’ students

Ocala Star Banner | by Joe Callahan | August 26, 2020

While Marion County Public Schools officials are celebrating a successful launch to the 2020-21 school year, officials shared concerns Tuesday about the whereabouts of 6,000 students who didn’t attend school on Monday.

Diane Gullett, Marion’s superintendent of schools, gave an update to the Marion County School Board on Tuesday. She listed many successes, such as stellar school bus service, and shared many photos of her tour of schools on Monday.

Gullet said she salutes the district’s 7,000 employees at 50 campuses and dozens of district offices for their hard work following COVID-19 pandemic school opening plans.

The superintendent also shared her news on Tuesday about student enrollment.

School officials tweaked Monday’s initial enrollment number upward by 600 students. Despite that, the official Monday enrollment was 32,411 students, nearly 10,600 fewer than attended in June at the end of last school year.

That number is also about 6,000 fewer than the first day of 2019-20 and 4,000 less than the first day of 2018-19.

The reason for the overall enrollment concern is that funding for Florida school districts is based on student counts.

In 2018-19 school year, for example, 36,700 students arrived on the first day and that number grew to nearly 43,000 by October.

Gullett was asked by board members whether the missing children may have been enrolled into home-school programs or into private schools, or parents just didn’t bring them on the first few days of school.

District’s officials did find that parents of 500 more students had chosen home-school programs. That is above the number of students who enrolled in home-school in 2019-20.

Parents who choose a home-school option must inform the district of that decision. Home-school programs are not affiliated with the school district. They are different than the district’s online platform offered during the pandemic.

Students taking the district’s online education platform attend all classes virtually like they would if they attended school in person. Home-school students are taught by their parents or participate in a specific national, state or local home-school online platform.

Of the remaining “missing” students, Gullett said staff is attempting to track down parents to determine whether they have enrolled them into private school. Parents do not have to notify school districts in Florida if they enroll their children in private schools.

“We want to make sure they are enrolled somewhere,” Gullett noted.

Officials have not ruled out that parents of 3,500 students who did not choose in-person or online instruction by last week’s deadline may not have sent their children to school on Monday. They expect many parents to arrive at schools this week to discuss enrollment options.

After the national recession hit in 2008, Marion County’s enrollment dipped by nearly 2,000 students in the years after the downturn. Parents who lost jobs left the county for work or to live with family members in other school districts.

During the pandemic, many people lost jobs or had hours sliced due to closures ordered by the state. Those families may have left the area.

Another issue that has cropped up during the first two days of school was anticipated technology glitches. District staff is working diligently to resolve those issues quickly, officials said Tuesday.

Officials said one online platform did not have mute buttons needed for teachers to control their classrooms. Some homes and school sites also struggled with internet bandwidth.

School board members also fanned out across the county to visit schools on Monday.

“All in all, I think we are off to a good start,” said Eric Cummings, the board chairman. “The biggest thing for me is the safety of our kids.”

Officials said that 71 students were sent home, per CDC guidelines, on Monday because of COVID-19 symptoms. That is less the one half of 1% of Monday’s student enrollment, officials said.

“When you said we had less than one half of 1% (sent home) that is pretty good,” Cummings said.

Gullett announced she will issue a detailed report via email every Friday to board members about COVID-19 related issues. That report will detail the number of students and staff sent home that week with symptoms and the number of those under quarantine.

Gullett and board members said employees need to remain focused every day and follow COVID-19 protocols at all times.

“We must remain diligent and follow (protocols) and don’t let our guard down,” Gullett said.

Kevin Christian, the school district spokesman, said of the 32,411 students who attended Monday about 21,949 students, or 68%, attended classes in person, while the balance attended classes online.

“I do expect that (in-person) number to go up,” Gullett said. “I am already hearing that many parents are already asking if their children can come back to our campuses.”

Officials with the Marion County Education Association (MEA), the local teachers’ union, said some online classes far exceeded state-mandated class-size caps: 18 in grades K-3; 22 in grades 4-8; and 25 in core high school classes.

“They have made those classes very large, for the most part,” MEA President Mark Avery said. “There are some schools that classes are normal size but there are other schools that have outrageous classe sizes online.”

Avery said he has heard reports of 40 to 50 students in one online class. In the past, before the pandemic, in-person classes have risen above state mandated limits.

Districts typically add, or move teachers around, after the 10-day count, which falls on Sept. 4 this year. Gullett said at Tuesday’s meeting that they are working on the schedules and class sizes.

Other highlights:

• Officials said 7,483 students rode the bus to and from school, down significantly from the 20,000-plus riders in recent years. The district has 264 buses that cover an average of 35,117 miles daily. 

• Food service workers served 6,657 breakfasts,13,913 lunches and 902 after-school snacks on Monday. Officials said that 67% of Marion students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

• The district transportation hotline answered 1,167 phone calls while the technology help desk received 591 calls, mostly for student password resets and schedule changes.

• The district telephone network handled 56,909 phone calls, an increase of 18% than the first day in August 2019. There were 26,669 incoming, 9,234 outgoing and 21,006 internal calls.

• Last Friday, the district sent and received 264,627 emails through the district network.  The average day the network processes 185,785 emails.

Photo: Ana Athow, 8, a Marion Oaks Elementary School third-grader, works on a worksheet in class on Monday morning. Ana was one of 32,411 students who attended Marion County Public Schools first day of school. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner file]

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