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.”