The missing students of the pandemic

A California school official searches his district for the hundreds left behind by covid-19
Indio High School Assistant Principal Rich Pimentel takes one of his trips through his California district to check in on students who have fallen behind in classes — or away from them. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

INDIO, Calif. — Rich Pimentel had already tried searching in a trailer park and a migrant camp when he started driving toward the third and final address listed in the student’s school file. He followed his GPS to a neighborhood on the edge of the desert, an oasis of palm trees and swimming pools protected by a steel gate. “Wow,” Pimentel said, as he rolled down his window and pulled up to a call box. “Finally a happy ending. Maybe this kid’s actually okay.”

He punched in an access code, but the gate wouldn’t open. He pressed a call button to ask for help, but nobody answered. He waited for another minute, parked his truck, and started to climb the fence. On the other side, a resident waved for him to stop.

“It’s okay,” Pimentel said, holding up his school ID. “I’m an assistant principal at the high school. I’m trying to find one of our missing students.”

It had been a year since the pandemic closed Indio High School and its 2,100 students began to disappear, first from the hallways and then from virtual classes as attendance dropped from 94 percent down to as low as 70 percent. The school was like hundreds of others hit hardest by covid-19 — mostly low-income and mostly Latino, with a vulnerable population that had suffered disproportionately from the virus and its injustices. Half of Indio’s students lived with family members who had gotten sick. A third lacked stable housing. A quarter had begun working full time or caring for younger siblings who were also home from school. At least 350 students were regularly failing to attend class, so Pimentel had decided to spend every Wednesday driving to homes across the Coachella Valley to find missing students and offer his help.

He jumped over the fence and walked into the gated neighborhood, searching for the right address until he stopped at a large stucco home with a camera mounted to the front door. He rang the doorbell, waved into the camera, and pulled down his mask to show his face. “Good morning!” he called out. He was the only person from the school who did regular home visits, so he’d created his own system. He always carried hand sanitizer and tried to meet with students outside of their homes. He brought gifts of school bracelets, stickers, WiFi hotspots from the school district, and sometimes also canned food or secondhand clothing. Mostly, he waited, often standing on a porch for 10 minutes or longer as he listened to barking dogs and studied the curtains for movement and knocked on windows with cheerful insistence.

“Alejandro! Alejandro!” he called. He watched the shades move in an upstairs bedroom and rang the bell again. “Good morning! How are you?”

As he waited, Pimentel pulled out the student’s file and studied it for clues. He was a senior who’d been on track to graduate as a C student at the beginning of the school year, when Indio High sent out a perfunctory email to all seniors asking for measurements for their graduation gowns. Alejandro had failed to respond, so the school tried calling his emergency contact, his father, who didn’t respond either. Eventually someone on the school’s clerical staff had found the father listed in the local obituary notices, dead of pneumonia at 43, and now Pimentel didn’t know where Alejandro was living, or with whom, or if he was homeless in a pandemic at age 17. The other contacts in his file had led nowhere. He’d missed more than 30 days of school and was no longer on track to graduate.

“Hello!” Pimentel said again. He knocked harder until finally a voice answered over an intercom.

“Do I know you?”

“It’s Mr. Pimentel from Indio High. I’m here to see Alejandro.”


“Alejandro,” Pimentel said again. He smiled and leaned closer to the camera. “We miss him. We’re starting to get worried.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the resident said. “You’ve got the wrong house. We just moved here last year.”

“Oh,” Pimentel said. He apologized, stepped back from the porch, and crossed off the address in his paperwork. During the past several months, he’d found students who slept in tents, students who lived in homeless shelters and students who took their school-issued laptops along as they harvested dates in the sunbaked groves outside of cell range, but the home visits that haunted him most were the ones where he discovered nothing at all. He walked back to his truck and added a note to Alejandro’s file.

“Visit unsuccessful,” he wrote. “Student’s location unknown.”

* * *

Indio High School, which was closed as the coronavirus pandemic spooled up on March 13, 2020, remains dark. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

The school had been closed since March 13, 2020, and as the months dragged on, Pimentel had begun to worry not just about his students’ whereabouts but also about what their absence could portend for the rest of their lives. It was too early to measure the legacy of an ongoing pandemic, but national data had begun to hint at the potential damage. Test scores in some parts of the country were down by as much as 7 percent. Chronic absenteeism for students of color had doubled. Education experts were forecasting rising inequity between public and private schools, a decade of falling graduation rates for at-risk students, and at least a 3 percent decline in lifetime earnings for students of color.

What all of that meant at Indio High was that the middle ground had all but disappeared. When Pimentel studied the grade reports, he almost never saw any C’s. There were students in stable homes who still got mostly A’s and B’s, and hundreds of at-risk students who were failing at a historic rate.

Pimentel still went into the school each morning to work out of a small administrative building surrounded by abandoned classrooms. His official job was to supervise attendance and technical education, but before the pandemic he’d spent most of his time away from his office, talking to students in the hallways as he studied their mannerisms and made quiet assessments: Who looked depressed? Whose backpack was tattered? Who smelled of marijuana? Who was bruised or disheveled?

But now the campus was lifeless except for a weekly food pantry outside the main entrance and a few homeless students who occasionally came to use the washer and dryer in the art room. Pimentel’s main access to students was through two computers on his desk. He visited a few virtual classes each morning to monitor attendance and say hi to students, and now he looked at a master schedule of all 55 third-period classes and clicked on a link for Study Skills. There were 32 students in attendance. Two faces and 30 vacant black boxes popped up on his screen.

“Hi! It’s Mr. Pimentel,” he wrote in the classroom chat box. “How are you all? Turn on your cameras to say hi.”

A few more faces appeared, but many of the boxes remained blank. Students at Indio had the choice of whether to turn their cameras on, and the result was almost always an empty grid. Some students told teachers they kept their cameras off because of slow Internet service. Others said they were embarrassed to show the inside of their homes. The school policy was to credit full attendance to any student who logged in to class, in any form, for any portion of the class period. Students who still failed to attend received weekly phone calls from a staff member, and each morning Pimentel read over the notes from those calls.

“After months of good progress in my class, she stopped doing her assignments a few weeks ago,” read one note at the top of Pimentel’s screen. “I called and she admitted difficulties at home because her dad is on life support with covid.”

“Ouch. Poor kid,” Pimentel said. He circled her name for a home visit and scrolled to the next report.

“Student says he slept late and missed class after night of insomnia. He seems anxious, depressed, and demoralized.”

“Ugh,” Pimentel said. He circled the name and continued on.

“Student believes it’s more important for his younger sibling to succeed at this point, because he can get a job with his dad doing landscaping.”

“I talked to mom and she said her son has become extremely frustrated and violent at times. She is seeking ANY type of help.”

Pimentel looked over the updates until he came to one for Alejandro. “Called twice but no answer,” the report read, so Pimentel sent an email to Alejandro’s student account. “I’m just checking in on you. I know this year has been really tough, and you’re in my thoughts.” He hit send and then tried redialing the numbers listed in the file. The first was disconnected. The second went straight to voice mail. Then Pimentel noticed a third number buried within the notes, for Alejandro’s father’s old cellphone. “Why not?” Pimentel said. From the sound of the ringtone, he could tell the phone was somewhere in Mexico. He heard a click on the line, a garbled noise and then static.

“Hello?” he said, but nobody responded.

“Hello?” he said again. “Are you there? Anyone?”

* * *

Pimentel sometimes must knock on windows in his efforts to reach his students.
Pimentel checks in on Brandon, one of the students on his list. He is eager to offer them resources to return to class or perform better.
Pimentel talks with student Belen and her mother, Juliana. Belen lost her father in December, and Pimentel worries that she’s “an honor kid that’s about to be a dropout.” (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)
TOP: Pimentel sometimes must knock on windows in his efforts to reach his students. BOTTOM LEFT: Pimentel checks in on Brandon, one of the students on his list. He is eager to offer them resources to return to class or perform better. BOTTOM RIGHT: Pimentel talks with student Belen and her mother, Juliana. Belen lost her father in December, and Pimentel worries that she’s “an honor kid that’s about to be a dropout.” (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

Disconnected phones. Broken laptops. Faulty WiFi. Disabled video cameras. Sometimes the only way for Pimentel to get answers was to make his weekly road trip, so he loaded his truck with 14 student files and began driving toward the first address on his list, a low-income housing complex a few blocks from school. He walked up to a porch crowded with old strollers and rang the bell until a 10th-grader came to the door. He was eating scrambled eggs out of a frying pan, and he reached out to shake Pimentel’s hand.

“You’re alive, man!” Pimentel said. “I’m glad. I was worried about you!”

“Really? Why?” the student asked, and Pimentel opened the student’s file to read off the reasons. He’d mentioned to one of his teachers that three relatives had recently died of covid-19. He’d been absent for 72 percent of school days. He was failing five classes.

“I know. I’m sorry,” the student said. He gestured behind him into the apartment, where three little girls were running in the living room. “It’s just that I’m in charge of my sisters, and they do their school on my laptop.”

“I’m not here to beat you up,” Pimentel said. “I know life is impossible right now.”

They stood in silence for a moment, and Pimentel decided to change tactics. “Have you ever had a crush on a girl?” he asked.

The student looked confused. “Uh, yeah. I guess so.”

“You know how you’d do anything to talk to her? You’d never give up?”

“Yeah,” he said, breaking into a smile.

“Okay. That’s how I want you to be about going to class. It’s going to be a million-dollar difference over your lifetime depending on if you graduate or not. I need you to be obsessive about school. I need you to be possessed.”

Pimentel spends every Wednesday driving to homes across the Coachella Valley. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

He got back in the truck and started driving toward the next address, passing dusty lettuce patches and clapboard fruit stands. Pimentel had moved to California from rural Mexico as a high school sophomore when his father started working as a mechanic in the citrus fields. His family couldn’t afford to pay rent, so they’d moved in with relatives until they could save enough for a small apartment. Pimentel had enrolled in high school and also in night school to learn English, and three years later he’d graduated near the top of his class with a scholarship to Notre Dame. High school had transformed his life, and he’d become an administrator to help other at-risk students during what he considered their most pivotal years. Along with the rest of Indio’s staff, he’d helped to make it one of the area’s best public schools, with a 96 percent graduation rate for students of color, a full slate of AP classes and a three-word maxim that hung near the entryway: “Effort. Energy. Resilience.”

Pimentel had seen those characteristics from many of the students during the pandemic, but lately he’d begun to wonder exactly how much resilience could possibly transcend what he sometimes witnessed on his home visits. Early in the pandemic, after leaving a student’s home in a migrant camp, he’d broken down crying in his truck and started writing an email to the entire school staff to describe what he’d just seen: a student trying to get a better WiFi signal by taping his hotspot to the top of a ladder in the family’s kitchen, and then waiting 20 minutes for a Web page to load, and finally deciding to walk a mile to McDonald’s so he could log in for World History. “I know you’re all trying hard, but so are our students,” Pimentel wrote. “The main subject of every class should be: ‘How are you? Are you doing okay?’ ”

Now, that student had dropped out of school to paint houses and Pimentel was pulling into one of the valley’s most dilapidated mobile parks for his 320th home visit of the pandemic. The sunken porches and crowded apartments had started blending together in his memory, and he sometimes worried he was becoming numb.

This time the family was waiting out front, and the mother waved to Pimentel and nudged her son in his direction. “Tell him! Tell him about the craziness that’s happening here,” she said, but when her son began to stammer, she spoke over him. She said his laptop wasn’t working, so Pimentel fiddled with it for a few moments until he got it to turn on. She said her son sometimes refused to do his schoolwork, so Pimentel handed her a standard sheet from the district with tips for good attendance. “Keep a regular bedtime.” “Plan family vacations on school breaks.” The mother gestured to dents in the trailer walls and cracks in the windows. “He gets frustrated,” she said. “The computer goes out and he starts punching things.” She went inside and returned with a basket of prescription medications. “Why don’t they work for him?” she asked. “Why isn’t anything helping?”

“I’m not a doctor, but we can offer more support,” Pimentel said, and he started emailing the school’s counseling team even as he navigated toward the next address on his list.

It was an apartment that was padlocked with moving boxes still inside. “Please call me!” Pimentel wrote on the back of his business card, and he slipped it under the door.

The next: a budget motel, where a student who had recently immigrated from India was living in room 122, working at the front desk and trying to pass eight online classes despite speaking limited English.

“What am I even solving?” Pimentel asked himself once he was back in the truck, driving to a migrant camp to visit his final student of the day. He walked up to a cinder block apartment with a missing front door. It was his fourth trip to the same home, and he peered into the living room and knocked on the wall until a high school junior came to the doorway in pajamas.

“You been sleeping?” Pimentel asked. He held up his watch. It was almost 2 p.m.

The student yawned and gave a sheepish smile. “Yeah, sorry,” he said.

“Man, how many times are we going to do this?” Pimentel asked, shaking his head, looking down at the student’s file. “You’re still hit-and-miss. Three days in a row you did nothing. Then you show up for a class. Then nothing. More nothing. What are you doing all day?”

The student shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m tired. Why does it matter?”

“Why does it matter?” Pimentel repeated, his voice rising. “Are you serious right now?”

The student looked at the ground and kicked dust with his feet.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed lately, but the world isn’t going to do you any favors,” Pimentel said. “You’ve got obstacles piling up in front of you. You need to hustle. You need to fight. How can I possibly be hungrier for your success than you are?”

Pimentel stared at him for a moment, waiting for an answer, but the student kept his eyes on the ground. From his spot on the porch, Pimentel could see the tinfoil blocking the apartment windows to keep out the heat. He saw workers coming and going from the adjacent strawberry fields and the steeple of a nearby Catholic church that was expanding its graveyard after averaging as many as 10 covid burials each week. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter, almost apologetic.

“I’m here because I care about you,” he said. “You know that, right? Your future matters to me. You matter.”

* * *

A weekly food pantry operates outside Indio High School. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

Pimentel and most of the staff at Indio High assumed it would stay closed until at least the summer, but one morning in March the principal called a virtual staff meeting to announce the sudden possibility of reopening the school.

Only half of Indio’s families said they were ready to return, but political pressures across the country had begun to shift. President Biden said he wanted in-person learning to be treated as “immediately essential.” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) had just signed a bill offering $6.6 billion in incentives for schools that reopened in the spring. The county had set up a vaccination clinic for teachers and staff, and the school board had voted to bring some students back to Indio by as early as late March.

“My head’s still spinning with all of this,” said the principal, Derrick Lawson, speaking to 100 teachers on Zoom. Lawson was also an ordained minister, and in the past year he’d eulogized 11 parents or grandparents of his students after covid deaths. “We’re obviously still going to be dealing with the realities of this virus. What are some of your concerns?”

Pimentel watched in his office as the teachers started to ask questions. How many desks would be in each classroom? How many students at each lunch table? Who would police mask-wearing in the bathrooms? Would doorknobs be sanitized between each class or just at the end of the day? Pimentel listened and nodded along until he’d filled two pages with notes, and then he turned on his microphone and looked at the camera.

“All of this is smart and really valid,” he said. “When it comes to these kids right now, we all have so many concerns,” and he thought about the reported spikes in child abuse, food insecurity, homelessness, suicide, and the hundreds of homes he’d visited in the past year.

“The bottom line is a lot of these kids need to be here,” Pimentel told the group. “It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be stressful. Sometimes, we’re going to mess up. But you’re amazing at your jobs, and we can help them. Let’s go. Let’s embrace the craziness and start figuring it out.”

The meeting ended and he clicked over to his email. Messages were already stacking up from teachers and parents who had more questions about reopening, more concerns, and within that pile he saw an email from Alejandro.

“Hello, Mr. Pimentel. Thank you for checking up on me,” he wrote. “I moved after everything happened.” Attached was his new address.

* * *

Pimentel’s reports on students show no middle ground. There are students in stable homes who still get mostly A’s and B’s, and hundreds of at-risk students failing at a historic rate. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)

It was a subsidized apartment complex in the shadow of a Super 8 motel, and later that week Pimentel walked into the courtyard and Alejandro came outside to greet him. He wore glasses, a mask and a fitted jacket. He made eye contact and waved.

“Alejandro!” Pimentel said. “Look at you, man! I’ve been searching. I’ve been like: ‘Where is he? I need to make sure this kid is okay!’ ”

Alejandro laughed. “Yeah, I’m sorry for the trouble,” he said.

“No. I’m sorry for you,” Pimentel said. “Tell me what’s been going on. How have you been?”

“That’s a long story,” Alejandro said, and he began to describe his past several months. He’d been attending most of his virtual classes until his father started coughing inside their apartment early in the fall. Doctors suspected covid but couldn’t confirm it, so his father eventually returned to work at a meat shop, going back and forth between an industrial freezer and the desert heat until the coughing fits worsened and he developed pneumonia. Alejandro had become his caretaker, helping his father through the nights with Gatorade and cough syrup, and starting a job at KFC to make up for lost income. His father’s breathing continued to worsen until finally he decided to seek medical care in Mexico, where he’d died a few weeks later.

“Unreal,” Pimentel said. “And now you’re living here?”

“Kind of,” Alejandro said, and he explained that he was going back and forth between his mother’s house on the other side of the Coachella Valley and his sister’s apartment in this building, where he slept on the couch and sometimes tried to do schoolwork while he babysat his 1-year-old niece.

“I’m so far behind,” he said. “I’m failing basically everything.”

“You’re dealing with things that go way beyond school,” Pimentel said. “You’re stepping up for your family. We all understand that.”

“Sometimes I open the computer, and it’s a feeling of defeat,” he said.

“You have options,” Pimentel said, and he explained that the school might be reopening soon. “Maybe you can catch up, and if not, you’re the perfect candidate for summer graduation. You’re part of our family. I want you to have that Indio diploma.”

He handed Alejandro a sheet with the school’s tutoring schedule and then wrote his email and cell number. “Call, text — whatever you need,” he said. “I can talk to your teachers and help figure this out.” Alejandro thanked him and then walked back through the courtyard, disappearing into the apartment building. Pimentel went to his truck, grabbed the student files, and took out his pen.

“Finally got a few answers,” he wrote. “Sometimes they hurt to hear.”

“The bottom line is a lot of these kids need to be here,” Pimentel told a group of 100 teachers in a Zoom group. “It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be stressful. Sometimes, we’re going to mess up. But you’re amazing at your jobs, and we can help them. Let’s go. Let’s embrace the craziness and start figuring it out.” (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)
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