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Remote Learning Presents Additional Challenge For Students Experiencing Homelessness

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Today we learn about what remote learning is like for some of the most vulnerable children - those who are homeless. All this school year, we've been hearing from students, families and educators about the pandemic's effect on education. It's part of our series Learning Curve. NPR education correspondent Cory Turner joins us now.

Welcome.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Thanks, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do we know about the many school-age children who are homeless in the United States right now?

TURNER: Well, the most recent data comes from the 2017-2018 school year. We know that that's roughly 1.5 million kids.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

TURNER: And again, this is preschool through 12th grade. And of the more than a dozen school workers, shelter managers and families I spoke with, everyone says that number has certainly gotten worse during this pandemic. The problem is compounded, though, Lulu, by the fact that it's harder for schools to identify kids who are homeless when school is remote. So I had several school-based social workers tell me, in normal times, it would be teachers constantly checking in with school social workers and counselors, saying, hey, you know, so-and-so fell asleep in class today, or, I'm not sure she's getting enough to eat. You might want to check in. But much of that connection has been lost.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What else did you hear? - because I imagine that's just the tip of the iceberg.

TURNER: Yeah, it really is. I mean, let's start with the most obvious. To work remotely, you have to have, at the very least, some kind of computer and some kind of access to the Internet. So I spoke with Rachel. She's 17 and homeless, living in a hotel with her mom in Cincinnati. And she says her school gave her a laptop to use, but the hotel's Internet is really spotty.

RACHEL: Wi-Fi - it sucks. Hotel Wi-Fi is the worst. I have to be in, like, meetings. Like, I have to be face-to-face with all my teachers in my classes. And they're like - every three seconds, it's like, Rachel, you're glitching. Rachel, you're not moving.

TURNER: One other voice I want to share with you, Lulu, is a mother named April in Chatham, N.J. She spoke as part of an online congressional briefing on challenges that homeless families face right now. And, like Rachel, she described staying in a hotel where she'd been placed and trying to help the four kids with her get online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

APRIL: I was able to communicate with the schools and asked them if my kids could actually physically just do the work and I'd drop it off because they couldn't work online. It was just impossible with the hotel Wi-Fi. And then my kids just became so discouraged. They just didn't want to do the work at all because they felt so hopeless. I had nothing to take away from them if they didn't do their work. What was I going to take away? Nothing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is so hard to hear because clearly, you know, these kids are falling through the cracks. Did you hear of any shelters or special programs meant to help homeless students specifically reconnect with school remotely?

TURNER: So I did, but I was also surprised, Lulu, by the real limits to what can be done within the current safety net. So homeless shelters, like these hotels - many of them obviously don't have good Wi-Fi, but that's not even the biggest issue. More importantly, I heard that many of these shelters have a rule that says during the day, if a parent or caregiver leaves the shelter, you know, say, to go to work, the child has to leave, too. The child can't stay. But now in the pandemic, many of the low-cost child care options that families used to have - they're gone.

So I talked with Patricia Rivera about this. She's a former Chicago Public Schools social worker, and she founded a group called Chicago HOPES for Kids. It's a after-school program for the city's homeless. She says not being able to leave their kids alone at a shelter or find low-cost child care presents many homeless parents and caregivers with really an impossible choice right now.

PATRICIA RIVERA: How do you choose between working and providing for your family and your child's education? I mean, what is your priority? I mean, it would have to be that you have to work so that your family can live.

TURNER: So, you know, some homeless students aren't logging on because they don't have a computer or Internet. But for many, it's because they have to follow a parent to work or just bounce around, you know, wherever they can. It's just - school's not realistic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So is there any talk of schools at least letting their most vulnerable kids, including homeless children, back into the building full time?

TURNER: Yeah, there is. I've seen many districts, especially in the last few weeks, really try to make this pivot. And along these lines, I heard something that really kind of stopped me for a second this week when I was talking with Alexis Loving. She works with homeless families in Houston, and she helps run a child care - I love the name of this place, Lulu. It's called the House of Tiny Treasures. It's been closed for the last six months, but they decided to reopen this week because, Loving says, her team realized...

ALEXIS LOVING: That we had more control over keeping them safe in the school and in the building than we can at home. That's, you know, how we made our decision.

TURNER: And this is what really stands out for me from the past week and a half of reporting I've done on this story. Advocates, school leaders - they are torn up about this. They know...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can imagine.

TURNER: They know after six months of pandemic that they have kids in their districts who are in shelters or hotels or on somebody's couch. And not only are these kids missing out academically; they might not be eating or sleeping. They might be the victims of abuse. And school is the safest place they could possibly be, maybe even during a pandemic. So I asked Barbara Duffield about this. She's the head of SchoolHouse Connection, which is a national nonprofit fighting homelessness.

BARBARA DUFFIELD: There is nothing equitable about distance learning for children and youth who are homeless. So I do think that we have to be mindful that the - sorry. I'm getting emotional. OK. Sorry. The cost of keeping everyone safe is costing some children much more. So we're not a public health expert. We have to - we know that this pandemic is deadly. But the cost that will be paid by children and youth for whom school was their home is tremendous.

TURNER: And with many schools not reopening anytime soon, Lulu, kids are just going to keep paying that cost.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Cory Turner with important reporting there.

Thank you very much.

TURNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.