Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Palm Beach County children from immigrant families skipped school today in what appeared to be a symbolic protest tied to the nationwide “Day Without Immigrants” demonstration organized to highlight the role of the nation’s foreign-born workers.
Several county public schools with high immigrant populations were hit with large-scale absences this morning, educators said, a wave that they attributed both to families participating in the national strike and to fears stemming from unsubstantiated rumors of federal immigration roundups.
The full extent of the absentee spike was unknown. The county school district declined to release official figures or discuss the possible causes. County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa said he “was concerned” by the early reports but declined this afternoon to comment as he awaited official tallies.
But the wave of absences appeared to hit hardest at schools in and around Lake Worth, with some elementary schools reporting more than a third of their students missing.
South Grade Elementary Principal Michael Riley said his school, which serves a large Guatemalan immigrant population, had 286 children absent today, roughly a third of his student body.
“We have very few attendance problems here, so this is quite unusual,” he said. “I did not expect (the national demonstration) to affect our students here at school.”
Highland Elementary reported even higher numbers – 437 students who stayed home from school, more than 35 percent of the student body.
“We’re not sure of the reason for the absences,” Assistant Principal Erin Walsh said, “but we do have a very high rate of absences today.”
Middle schools also reported spikes in absentee rates. Among the hardest hit was Lake Worth Middle School, where a school district official said there were reports of hundreds of students missing today.
But the spike was felt in other parts of the county, too. The absentee rate at Okeeheelee Middle School west of West Palm Beach was quadruple the typical rate, Principal David Samore said.
At Palm Springs Elementary, it appeared that at least 200 students stayed home, according to a teacher at the school who asked not to be named.
Forest Hill High School in West Palm Beach saw a substantial but less dramatic spike. The absentee rate jumped to about 10 percent, up from about 7 percent on a typical day, Principal Mary Stratos said.
Educators and immigration advocates said most of the absences appeared to be related to today’s national “Day Without Immigrants” demonstrations, which were organized via social media in cities across the country in a response to President Trump’s immigration agenda and deportation plans.
Restaurants and day cares in several cities closed as immigrant workers stayed home to underscore their vital role in the economy. In one small New Jersey school district, a third of the students missed school.
Lake Worth resident Petrona Cardenas said she didn’t work today and that her eldest daughter, a fourth-grader at Barton Elementary, remained home from school as well. She learned of the “Day Without Immigrants” protest from friends and neighbors, she said, and decided to stay home to underscore Guatemalan immigrants’ importance to the community.
“We want to show them that we matter too in this country,” she said. “We depend on them and they depend on us too.”
Cardenas, a single mother of three who works harvesting fruit and vegetables, said she was dismayed by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and wanted to show that even immigrants who entered the country illegally play a vital role in the national economy.
“We come here to work, to make a life,” she said, “not to do drugs.”
But while many parents elected to keep their kids home from school as a political statement, other absences appeared to have been prompted by unsubstantiated rumors that federal immigration authorities were planning raids, said Tim Gamwell, assistant executive director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth.
“What we’re hearing is a mix,” he said. “In some cases it’s families who received the flier for the protest. The other part we’re hearing is there were rumors about Immigration arresting families and children.”
While there is no indication any such raids are taking place – and immigration officials do not advertise sweeps ahead of time – Gamwell said it is not uncommon for such rumors to take hold in neighborhoods populated by immigrant families.
“The rumors are deadly,” he said. “The fear in the households creates so much trauma for children and also can cause parents to do things they wouldn’t do normally, like skip work.”
The massive absences appeared to take Palm Beach County educators by surprise. “This was a shock to all of us,” the Palm Springs Elementary teacher said.
Riley, the South Grade principal, said he was aware of the plans for demonstrations and strikes but didn’t expect students to take part. He said he worried that students would lose valuable instructional time and access to the free, nutritional breakfasts and lunches that the school provides.
He said that he has instructed school employees to contact the parents of absent children and stress to them the importance of attending classes.
“I just want the parents to know that the kids are missed,” he said. “It’s a free public education that the kids are entitled to. It doesn’t make the same statement when the kids don’t show up.”