What Homeless Students Have to Deal With to Go to School During COVID

Spotty Wi-Fi, noisy shelters, and sometimes, little sleep.
October 14, 2020, 2:47pm
Cintucker Powell with her son, 11-year-old SirLaurance Jones. (Photo courtesy of Cintucker Powell)

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Most nights, people fight and scream outside the small room where Elizabeth Maldonado and her four children sleep—or try to, at least—at a homeless shelter in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Maldonado’s 15-year-old daughter, in particular, fears that if she closes her eyes, someone will burst through the door.

It’s no wonder, then, that her kids—ages 17, 15, 12, and 9—often don’t log on to their virtual classes come morning, Maldonado said. They’re exhausted.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maldonado’s children are stuck in the room they share at the shelter, without the escape of going to school. They sometimes attend online classes from their beds, where they’re reluctant to turn on audio or video to talk to teachers and peers, as it would betray their cramped, noisy surroundings. And if they leave to find a quieter space, there’s the risk their stuff may be stolen.

“They want to go back to school,” Maldonado, a 46-year-old single mother, said. “The 15-year-old, she goes like, ‘Mommy, how could I log myself into class when they’re standing in front of the bedroom door screaming, yelling, cussing? I don’t want my teacher to hear all that when he calls out my name.’”

Maldonado doesn’t know if any of her children will be held back a year due to their chronic absences, she said. But she knows it’s not their fault.

About 1.5 million homeless schoolchildren, like Maldonado’s kids, rely on America’s education system for food, emotional help, a quiet place to learn with greater access to technology, and a sense of normalcy. So, when the virus thrust tens of millions of students and their families into an online learning environment that most schools weren’t prepared for, homeless kids suffered. They no longer had a place they could spend their days, just focused on learning, before heading back to shared housing, hotels, shelters, cars, and other unstable living circumstances.

School districts have tried to make it work. In the past several months, they’ve doled out laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to kids who can’t afford them, since nearly 17 million children lack high-speed internet access at home. Luckily, those sorts of efforts mean Maldonado’s kids have two Wi-Fi hotspots to share and laptops to use at the shelter.

School buses have been used to distribute free meals that would’ve otherwise been enjoyed in cafeterias. Some nonprofits and school districts have even set up in-person “hubs” for homeless kids who just need a safe place for online learning.

Homeless student liaisons have also tracked down kids at laundromats and motels to ensure families don’t miss out on much-needed services or a fair, equal education. In Maldonado’s case, a teacher purchased headphones for one of her kids so they could listen to relaxing music at night, she said.

“I just tell my kids, ‘All this will be over soon.’”

Even so, advocates and experts are concerned it’s not going to be enough to repair months of turmoil. Kids might be trying to learn from unstable, complicated environments, or, worst of all, might’ve dropped off the map.

“They’ve lost stability, normalcy, routine, safety, food, people who care for them, friends, and, of course, education as well,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit that focuses on youth homelessness and education. “Very few and far between are the children who do better in a virtual setting.”

Long-term consequences

Nearly half of all U.S. school districts opted to restart this academic year with full, in-person instruction, according to an August report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Opening the year with an all-remote learning plan was more prevalent in urban districts with high concentrations of poverty and student homelessness, like Chicago.

“The communities who came into this epidemic with the fewest resources are the communities that are the most pressed to provide supports for their students,” said Anne Farrell, director of research at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Her work has long focused on systems that can support individuals and families experiencing adversity, including homelessness.

But even in districts where it’s possible to return to school, it’s not always in an impoverished child’s best interest. COVID-19 is still raging. And many homeless students have disabilities, are in poor health, or live with people for whom exposure to the virus could be deadly. So they’re forced to learn online for their safety.

Cintucker Powell, for example, fears for her 11-year-old son, SirLaurance Jones, who is asthmatic and at a higher risk of becoming ill with the virus. SirLaurance, who is also autistic and developmentally disabled, can’t wear a mask for very long and has a habit of putting his fingers and other items into his mouth. So he didn’t return to in-person school in Lawton, Oklahoma, this fall, even though the option was available to him.

That means Powell, a 44-year-old single mother who’s also disabled, is trying to assist her son with online learning from the tiny one-room home where she’s currently crashing with an older family friend. While there’s internet access, there’s no cooking stove and little privacy. And she’s worried she won’t be allowed to stay there for long.

SirLaurance has regressed during online learning. Words she’s worked hard to put into his vocabulary—like, “Help me,” and, “eat”—have faded away. He does, however, repeat “school bus,” since he’s wondering when it’ll come back to pick him up.

He’s also grown more agitated. SirLaurance and Powell log on to class together when they can, but they often wait to do schoolwork until the evening, when he’s calmer. In the meantime, Powell can’t afford the gas to travel to the locations where her local school district is distributing free meals. She’s worried SirLaurance can sense her stress.

Powell could escape homelessness with her fixed monthly disability income of $1,606 if she received help paying for a unit and utility deposit—which she’s currently fundraising for.  What SirLaurance needs, she said, is a space where she could make learning fun for him again. She imagines living in a place where they’d have room to play or set up a little mock-classroom.

“He is why I am doing what I’m doing to try and make a better life for us, for him. Why I keep going and why I keep trying,” said Powell, who was hoping to build a career in the criminal justice system before she fell behind in her own college lessons due to the stress of the pandemic. “I just want what’s best for him. I don’t want to spoil him, I just want to give him what he needs.”

For families without internet access, it’s even more dire. N., a mother of four who lives in a Texas hotel, said that virtual learning worked well for her kids until her Wi-Fi hotspot gave out. (She asked VICE News to use few identifying details because she’s a survivor of domestic abuse.) When she sought help from the technology assistant at her child’s school, she was told to sign up for Comcast’s Xfinity, which costs $10 a month. She can’t afford that.

“They’ll be in the middle of class and it just cuts off.”

As of Oct. 8, her children had missed a week and a half of classes purely because they didn’t have the means to log on.

“I don’t want them to miss a lot of days,” she said. “They’ll be in the middle of class and it just cuts off.”

N., like Powell, opted in to remote learning. Her two youngest children still need to be enrolled in school. One of them, a 5-year-old, is autistic and has a heart condition.

N.’s family was kicked out of a shelter that was concerned about the spread of COVID-19 last spring, along with other homeless residents, she said. She could only afford the hotel room—and the small bit of stability it offer—because of a GoFundMe campaign.

“I don’t want to have to go back to another shelter and have my kids acting worse than what they are,” she said.

Chronic absenteeism—whether it’s caused by shoddy internet access or a turbulent lifestyle—has been linked to an increased risk of not completing high school, which, in turn, puts young people at a greater risk for experiencing homelessness later in life. Regularly missing class can hinder academic achievements and spur weaker reading proficiency,  While nationwide attendance data specifically related to homeless students is limited, some families are unquestionably finding it more difficult to access the sort of education they had pre-pandemic.

“As we look at the larger issue over time of homeless, we’re looking at growing the ranks because we don’t have kids in school right now,” Duffield said.

Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children of New York, said it’s unclear how many of New York City’s roughly 114,000 homeless kids just stopped regularly showing up for school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, local city council members subpoenaed the city’s Department of Education for student attendance data broken down by race, gender, and class level, while also including whether the absent students were living in temporary housing, disabled, or English-language learners.

“The dropout rate was already high, and there’s a concern about whether that increases,” Levine said.

Levine’s organization has heard about instances of New York City’s homeless children falling behind or losing critical skills during online learning. Although the city worked out iPads and T-Mobile hotspots for homeless students, attorneys noted in a recent letter to the city’s departments of education and homeless services that shelters often fall in cellular “dead zones.”

Homeless parents aren’t always able to sit with their children at the shelter and help out, either, since they have to go to work, Levine said. Some also speak a language other than English and struggle to assist their children in comprehending assignments. (Kids in New York City are now allowed to return to in-person class for part of the week, but about half of the city’s schoolchildren are still doing fully virtual lessons.)

One older homeless girl even stopped eating during the distress caused by remote learning, Levine said. School was a haven for her.

That goes to show that children will need intensive support—including emotional support—once they return to school, according to Levine. How that will be accomplished when New York City is in an economic crisis, she said, is unclear.

Elizabeth Maldonado’s eldest son, Robert, a 17-year-old high school junior, says there’s still hope for kids like him, though. He asked that VICE News not use his full name.

While he’s not getting as much help these days in figuring out his college applications, he hopes to become an interior designer. He said he’s been diligent in trying to attend all his classes from the confines of the shelter, although he sometimes misses his earliest lessons. He’s often up until 3 a.m. And he rarely turns on his camera or microphone once he’s in class.

“I personally believe that in-person learning is a lot better for me—I like to participate in groups and I’m more of a hands-on learner,” Robert said. “Right now I have all my assignments turned in and I’m pretty much up-to-date.”

Maldonado said Robert has always been a good student. But she’s a mom, so she worries. It’s important to her that all of her kids graduate high school because she did not. And a diploma would allow them to go further in life.

But as long as she’s staying in the Englewood homeless shelter—and as long as there’s remote learning—working toward that goal will be challenging. On Tuesday, she said she had reached her breaking point with the shelter and was looking to go stay with a friend from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, where she volunteers.

“I just tell my kids, ‘All this will be over soon,’” Maldonado said. “We’ll be in our own home where they can attend classes, where they can actually turn the cameras on because they’ll have their own spot. They’ll be in their own different, private places.”