Schools across the state of Maryland are continuing with virtual learning because of the resurgence of COVID-19. While both families and students are adapting to the new learning norms, remote learning presents additional challenges for kids experiencing homelessness.
Debra Wilcox, a social worker at Health Care for Homeless, a Baltimore based organization, which provides comprehensive health care services and supportive services to people experiencing homelessness, is lending a hand to kids to meet their school’s expectation regardless of the challenges.
“Health Care for Homelessness is inquiring about school and school-related issues during client visits. Children experiencing learning issues are referred to me, and sometimes our Community Health Worker for assistance. First, I assess the situation and then discuss a plan with the parent. I work to help facilitate communication with the school staff so issues can get resolved. I also help parents identify school contact people, so they know how to reach out if future issues arise,” said Wilcox.
According to the National Center for Homeless Education, the number of homeless children in the United States is at its highest in more than a decade. More than 1.5 million public school students nationwide were homeless at some point during the 2017-2018 School Year. That figure was the highest recorded in more than 12 years.
Education during pandemic is hard enough, but for kids experiencing homelessness, virtual learning comes with a number of concerns and challenges. Wilcox explained that one of the initial challenges for homeless students is getting them enrolled in school! Even though the McKinney-Vento Act provides protection to help facilitate enrollment, often times there are issues with schools following the law. For example, students experiencing homeless don’t have to provide documentation of their situation or vaccines to get enrolled.
Once students are enrolled, then there is the challenge of connecting with technology, including hotspots if the family does not have Internet access. At the beginning of the pandemic, schools provided paper packets for students to work on if they did not have technology access. This year, schools have been distributing technology but there have been some delays for students.
“Students experiencing homelessness reside in a variety of situations, often with many distractions or lack of privacy which is not conducive to learning. Students experiencing homelessness have a history of trauma and their current situation is very stressful which is also difficult for trying to learn remotely. Students experiencing homelessness also have behavioral health and learning difficulties that complicate the learning at home process,” said Wilcox.
Poor students are twice as likely as non- poor students to repeat a grade, be expelled, get suspended or drop out of high school. The National Center on Family Homelessness estimates that the graduation rate of children experiencing homelessness is less than 25 percent. Of high school students experiencing homelessness, 11.4 percent are proficient in math and 14.6 percent are proficient in reading.
Sharon Gomez, a mother of six who experienced homelessness says that being homeless affected her kids’ education performance and behavior due to constant distraction, lack of privacy and the instability.
“My kids were always stressful, we have fewer support. Every time we moved, I noticed my children were resilient, they needed support to both communicate their needs and to adapt to the change. The stress of not having a safe and permanent home, and moving from one place to the next caused cognitive developmental challenges. My kids’ personalities changed. Their coping mechanisms impact the way they see the world and face problems,” said Gomez.
“Homelessness is very stressful which can cause increased anxiety and distractibility in children. Families seem to have fewer supports as well. Understandably, the family is focused on meeting basic needs such as shelter and food. Parents are having considerable stress trying to work on obtaining housing and manage distance learning,” said Wilcox.
Wilcox told the Baltimore Times that family shelters in Baltimore City have learning centers and staff support available to children. Many schools have been reaching out to parents and students. Some schools have also helped parents set up pods for support with shared learning, although this is difficult for families experiencing homelessness. The city schools have established some Learning Resource Centers for students to attend (in person) get daily support with on-line learning. More of these centers would be helpful for students experiencing homelessness. Also, City schools have a plan to open up 27 schools for prioritized learners, which includes students experiencing homelessness.
The staff at the Health Care for Homeless are determined to keep assisting kids experiencing homelessness with barriers to enrollment and to identify contact people within the school to provide assistance for students without housing.
“We are Helping families connect to the school social worker and ESOL teachers to provide assistance and to obtain support with learning,” said Wilcox.