Homeless education: How the city struggles to school homeless kids

Stephon Johnson | 3/4/2021, midnight
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on every aspect of life in New York City. It has particularly affected public ...
School/education Pixabay photo

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on every aspect of life in New York City. It has particularly affected public education. Plans involving “blended-learning” (splitting time between in-person and remote learning) and complete remote learning have been met with mixed results. One of the main reasons people have objected to the change is the lack of access to technology for poorer New Yorkers.

Another reason is the number of homeless students who might not have the chance to do remote learning either.

According to statistics provided by the New York State Department of Education, during the 2019-2020 school year, an estimated 143,500 students were either homeless or partially homeless (split between shelters) in the state. Remote learning and the coronavirus might have increased it. With the battles of eviction moratorium vs. rent cancelling, the numbers could grow.

But the New York City Department of Education said that they have been on the case taking care of business. Officials stated that Students in Temporary Housing (STH) who opted into blended learning is one of the groups that “can be” prioritized for full-time in-person learning at their school. The city has 300-plus school and shelter-based staff who are equipped with the proper skills and resources to support their education along with their mental health and their families, including a specific focus on trauma informed care and restorative approaches.

The DOE also said that they stay in constant contact with students, families and educators offering help and supplies.

“We are committed to providing our students experiencing homelessness with a high-quality education that delivers critical support and resources to meet their needs every step of the way, including social workers, priority access to devices, and nutritious meals,” said DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Styer. “These students have been a priority during this crisis, and we continue to work closely with school communities and partner agencies to provide caring, supportive environments whether in-person or remote.”

DOE officials also said that they’ve distributed 15,000 LTE-enabled iPads to students currently in shelters and are continuing to distribute them to others. They claim to have 50,000 iPads ready to hand out to meet any needs for the remainder of the school year.

But remote learning and its disadvantages have created a split in education and a widening of the gap between those of means and those without.

According to a study by public and social sector management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, remote learning has created an even wider education gap and has been the catalyst in students falling further behind in education.

The report stated that while all children have fallen behind in education due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Black, Brown and indigenous people have suffered the most.

“While the worst-case scenarios from the spring may have been averted, the cumulative learning loss could be substantial, especially in mathematics—with students on average likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year,” the report stated. “Students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students. While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.”

According to the study, after analyzing data from the Curriculum Associated i-Ready platform, they found that students in their sample learned only 67% of the math and 87% of the reading that peers in their grade would usually learn. The losses were worse for schools with students who are predominantly people of color, where students were only learning 59% of the math and 77% of the reading.

A spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) said that the pandemic has exposed the city’s division on a social, economic and educational level and it’s up to City Hall to close the gap.

“The pandemic not only exacerbated inequality but also exposed our city’s inability to address homelessness,” UFT’s spokesperson stated. “Our schools had served as an anchor for children and families in temporary housing. Besides addressing our housing crisis, New York City must address the digital divide that impacts our most vulnerable students.”

Despite attempts by the city to provide help to homeless students, the environment affects a child’s capacity to learn.

According to data provided by the New York City’s health department from September 2020, the majority of New Yorkers who are at high risk for poor mental health outcomes are predominantly people of color.

Fifty-three percent of Latino New Yorkers, 38% of Black New Yorkers and 44% of Asian New Yorkers are dealing with “overwhelming or above average financial stress (when compared to 40% of white New Yorkers). And the same groups have experienced job losses and reduced hours at 49%, 38%, 45% and 34% respectively.

Some officials are ready to lend help. Last month, New York State Attorney General Letitia James and New York State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa issued guidance to local education agencies reminding them of their obligation to help homeless students have “consistent access to education resources.” They believe that identifying children who deserve more support than most should be a priority.

“Our children are our future, and we have a responsibility to ensure they are getting the supports they need and deserve,” stated James. “Far too often, students experiencing homelessness are left behind, especially in times of crisis. Ensuring our most vulnerable students have access to fundamental educational resources has never been more important, and I thank Commissioner Rosa for her partnership and continued commitment to New York’s students and families.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio emphasized helping the homeless as well during an interview this week with Ebro Darden on Hot 97. The mayor said that the city is obligated to house the homeless and assess their mental health when necessary given the pandemic’s effect on the mental health of all New Yorkers.

“…Look, here’s the simplest way to say it,” said de Blasio. “Everybody who is homeless on the street, once they were functioning in our world in, you know, everyday life, something caused them to spiral down to the point they were living on the street. We’ve got to bring them back up. We’ve got to bring them off the street, back up to a life that’s better and connect them with family again, get them the kind of treatment and support they need. We can reverse this trend…”

UFT’s spokesperson said that reversing the trend should continue post-pandemic.

“As we begin to recover as a city, we need to invest in our education infrastructure across the board, especially as it relates to technology,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to work with and push City Hall to focus on the most vulnerable students as their priority.”