By: Clarissa Huard
Virtual learning is a new realm that everyone has had to navigate during these past few months. Teachers have stepped up and have become creative in their new online classrooms. Parents have had to balance work requirements with helping their children. Students have slowly adapted in an attempt to establish some sort of routine and sense of normalcy. However, for some students, concerns about virtual exposure of their living situation is just one of many worries during this time. The pandemic and the shift to virtual learning has disproportionately impacted a specific population of students: those experiencing homelessness.
Academic Achievement for Students Experiencing Homelessness
During the 2017/18 school year, there were more than 1.5 million students experiencing homelessness in the United States, not including students who became homeless over the summer. In Illinois alone, 53,696 students experienced homelessness during the 2018/19 school year, and in Chicago, that number was around 16,451. This school year, due to adverse circumstances created by the pandemic, the number of students experiencing homelessness has likely increased.
Even before the pandemic and the onset of virtual learning, students experiencing homelessness faced additional challenges in school. Students who experience homelessness are three times more likely to transfer schools mid-year compared to their peers, presenting an additional factor that may lead to greater risk of falling behind in school. In Chicago alone, 97% of students experiencing homelessness move up to three times per year. Each time a student moves, they leave behind friends, have to catch up on curriculum, and the foundation of trust between student and teacher has to start all over again. In addition to moving, long commutes to school, frequent transfers, an environment that is not conducive to learning, a lack of basic supplies, and trauma are just some of the few additional adverse experiences that may impact a student’s school performance, making them at risk of falling behind in school.
Although Chicago students do not currently have to worry about commuting to school, other obstacles have become more prominent in the wake of COVID-19. These include health concerns, having an environment conducive to learning, lack of resources to learn from home, and lack of educational support. The ability to have proper educational support becomes an even greater challenge when attempting to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities. Children experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability compared to their housed peers, placing this niched population at an even greater risk.
E-learning in Shelters
As mentioned by Chicago HOPES for Kids founder Patricia Rivera in a recent interview with NPR, parents experiencing homelessness are faced with an impossible choice: provide for their family or prioritize their child’s education. During the pandemic, Chicago HOPES for Kids volunteers have started to work with students living in Chicago’s homeless shelters to provide additional support for e-learning. At Cornerstone Community Outreach, volunteers arrive at 7:30 a.m. to begin helping students set up their work space and log on for the school day. While shelters have seen an overall increase in access to WiFi and technology, students experiencing homelessness are faced with additional challenges, such as a lack of outlets or a noisy environment. It is important to note that each shelter is different, from the guidelines they have in place to the type of space they have available for students to use. One common guideline mandates that children cannot be left in the shelter unaccompanied; their guardian must also be physically present. Because of this, many students miss out on large portions of the school day. When school was in person, this rule did not have such a major impact, but with remote learning, it is a large obstacle. Another challenge students experiencing homelessness face is the lack of resources and space to conduct e-learning. WiFi is not always fast and the signal often cuts in and out during classes. There is also often limited access for students to charge their laptops, and they have to leave the lesson when their computers need charging.
Not all shelters have the capacity to give each child their own e-learning space. Experts have recommended that to help students stay engaged and focused, a designated school workspace is important. The workspace can be personalized and can help to set a routine because the student knows that when they enter this space, it is time for school. Not all students in shelters have the luxury of having an e-learning space that is separated from their living space. Even when they do have a space, it may still be noisy and therefore difficult to follow along with the teacher. This can make it very challenging to stay engaged with the material.
Another space-related challenge, one that has newly emerged with virtual learning, is that your living space will be broadcasted to your peers.8 Students may have concerns around being judged for living in a shelter because of the stigma around homelessness. Classism is deeply ingrained in our society, and it’s important that we recognize the ways in which it will manifest through e-learning so we can take the steps to prevent it.
Perhaps one of the most detrimental aspects of virtual learning is that it takes away a safety net for many students who rely on school for a sense of routine, safety, and social support. School can provide a sense of stability in their lives when so much else is up in the air. There are friends and teachers around who can check in on them and provide support and encouragement. While students can see their friends over Zoom, these connections cannot make up for sharing a laugh with your friends at lunch or playing tag during recess. As one of our Site Coordinators, Walden Putterman, described “We've also worked with students who would practically be alone for the whole day if we weren't there to keep them company. This is especially unfortunate during lunch, recess, and movement breaks, where in-person social engagement plays a vital role in their experience and personal development.” Studies have shown that good quality education can act as a protective factor for children and help mitigate the risks that come with the experience of homelessness.9 However, e-learning is not providing an education that is comparable to in person learning.
In the end, virtual learning can never compare to in-person learning, especially for young students who need more support and guidance, such as those experiencing homelessness. Since they are at a critical stage in their development, children experiencing these setbacks may have a lifelong impact on their learning as well as their overall well-being. Teachers in Chicago are working hard to support their students, and organizations like HOPES are attempting to step in and fill the gaps. There is no easy solution to virtual learning, but we must continue to come together as a community and support each other. The pandemic is nowhere near over in the United States, and it is likely we will need to engage in precautions to maintain our health and safety for the long-term. This article highlights some of the many challenges we must grapple with regarding the education of children, particularly those experiencing homelessness, as we continue to navigate this new reality.