DETROIT – Fourth-grader Caron Lee-Clemons and first-grader Javerion Rouse are homeless and school-less.
The brothers are staying with their mother and three siblings in a homeless shelter in Westland, Mich., where they occupy a single room with five twin beds and a crib for the youngest child.
The closure of the boys' elementary school, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, coincided with the loss of a place to live earlier this year, when they were staying with a friend and had to leave. They have been in the shelter for two months.
Their mother, Valincea Clemons, says she is doing her best to support her sons, Caron, 9, and Javerion, 5, with their online education inside the shelter while caring for three younger children, all younger than the age of 4.
Clemons wakes at 5 a.m., dresses all five children and after breakfast walks her two older sons to a nearby room inside the shelter where a library is set up with tables and chairs.
Inside the library, the brothers sit next to each other at a long desk, using desktop computers and an internet connection provided by the shelter to do schoolwork during the day away from the family's living area.
With baby Noah on her hip, Clemons stays with the boys in the library for a few minutes, crouching over their computers, making sure their internet connection is OK and that they are working on materials for the classes scheduled that hour.
Within minutes, she returns to room 117, where her three younger children are playing with toys on the floor. In a few minutes, she will head back into the library to check on the boys and repeat the routine of bouncing between the rooms and two sets of children and until the school day is over.
"I am all back and forth every day. All day. This is what I do. This is my routine every single day," Clemons said.
Education experts say they expect the number of homeless students to rise during the pandemic, with mass unemployment, moratoriums on evictions eventually lifting and delayed unemployment benefits for working parents.
And as K-12 school buildings stay closed and more students learn remotely, away from the watchful eyes of educators who are trained to look for signs of homelessness, experts say schools must be more vigilant in finding affected students and helping them.
Understanding what is happening with homeless children requires an understanding of what school was for them, says Barbara Duffield, executive director of Schoolhouse Connection, a national nonprofit whose mission is to overcome homelessness through education.
"It was the safest place in their life. It didn't change. They had a right to be there. They had a federally mandated seat," she said. "They had that normalcy and structure of the same place as well as the services schools provide: basic shelter, food and adults looking out for them."
"When school closed, that was a tremendous loss. It made it much more difficult for schools to identify these children," Duffield said.
More than 1.5 million children nationwide experienced homelessness during the 2017–18 school year, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.
Although eviction moratoriums might have kept some families in their homes longer, Duffield said she expects the number of homeless students to increase this school year across the nation.
"It depends on how proactive districts are," she said. "I don't think anyone thinks homelessness has gone down."
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, school districts are required to identify homeless students every school year and provide assistance. Each school district has a liaison whose duties are outlined in the law, including in Michigan.
Michelle Williams, the state coordinator for McKinney-Vento at the Michigan Department of Education, said when Michigan schools suddenly shifted to online learning in March, the liaisons focused on supporting homeless students with food and device access.
"In cases where they had unique needs, our liaisons went to work," Williams said. "They made sure students had access to hotspots, the delivery of paper packets; some books were shipped to homes. I had requests from shelters for approval of computers to be used by students, books and supplies."
The same work has continued this fall, but Williams' office started regular meetings with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate help for homeless children.
This fall, as the pandemic continued and a large number of schools offered virtual learning, Williams says her department challenged districts to consider a list of questions while working with federal CARES Act funds, which can go to support homeless students.
The questions addressed access to devices, time with counselors and social workers, and access to supplemental learning.
"The federal law says if there is a barrier to enrollment/engagement in school, then McKinney-Vento would step in and have whatever barriers taken care of," Williams said. "I received a lot of emails asking if it was allowable to grant coordinators to supply computers and hotspots. That was definitely a hot one. The answer is yes."
Although Michigan's Count Day was earlier this month, state officials still do not know how many new students were identified as homeless, Williams said.
Michigan had 34,853 homeless students in the 2018-19 school year, which is the most recent year for which federal data is available.
According to state data, the majority of identified children, 26,754, are "doubled-up," which means they live with another family in the same home. About 4,900 live in shelters while about 2,500 live in motels. Some are unaccompanied youth and children of migrants. More than 7,800 have identified as students with a disability.
Identifying and helping homeless students during the age of COVID-19, online learning and closed school buildings is forcing Michigan school districts to revise some of their typical techniques.
In the past, when students showed up at school, educators looked for clues, such as a child wearing the same clothes repeatedly, being hungry or being chronically absent.
Duffield said her organization has helped districts nationally through training to identify homeless students who are learning virtually.
"Some of the signs are a reluctance to turn a camera on, changes in backgrounds, inconsistent attendance. In some cases, teachers asked students to write assignments about where they are living," she said.
Angela Pooley, the homeless and foster care liaison for Adrian Public Schools, said she has a handful of homeless students who opted to be virtual even though her district has face-to-face learning in school.
Last school year, the district served 250 homeless students, and Pooley says the numbers are already higher this year.
"The pandemic has had so many families lose their jobs. So many had difficulties collecting unemployment that caused them to move in with families and doubled-up," Pooley said.
The district made sure all students had hotspots and Chromebooks, regardless of their status. Homeless students receive daily teacher check-ins, an online mentor who checks in and Pooley herself calls each student to do a needs assessment.
"It's multiple layers of people connecting with them," Pooley said. "We are doing counseling referrals; we will go to their home and show them how to connect online with them. Everything we did in person before we are able to take to them."
Every homeless high school student has a graduation coach who monitors whether they log into school that day, and calls the student if they don't to ask what the barrier is.
"We are always concerned. They require a little more hands-on and checking," Pooley said. "We want to make sure they have a good education. It's a good way to break the cycle of poverty, and we don't want to miss a beat with these kids, and we want them to stay on track.
Tamieka Andrews, director of the Samaritas Family Center in Westland, said the shelter is serving 24 families right now, which includes 33 school-age children across six school districts.
Andrews said part of the shelter's role is to support children in school. The law allows children who are homeless and living in a shelter to attend their home school.
"Our staff connects with local liaisons for each district so our kids received whatever services they are entitled to. While our families are navigating this virtual school world, they are navigating getting out of homelessness," Andrews said.
Andrews says she sees families in the shelter struggle to provide quiet during the school day, or privacy if a child is on a Zoom call with a teacher and a class while other members in the same room are looking for work, housing and services.
The library used by the children is a "timed space," but Andrews said the shelter has given priority to large families, like the Clemonses, during virtual school.
"It would be impossible for these kids to be able to focus in their room with the babies; she has three under 5," Andrews said. "The kids can come in here where it's quiet and her room is right here, so it's close."
During the school shutdown, Andrews said some districts have been responsive and supportive of children in the shelter; others have not. Some have supplied laptops and hotspot devices and some have not.
"Parents are finding it's hard to get in contact with districts," she said. "Parents are running out of laptops and Wi-Fi."
Clemons, who is searching for a home to rent and is looking for a job to allow her to work from home, says she received laptops and Wi-Fi devices in September from Taylor Public Schools, where her children are enrolled, but the Wi-Fi devices kept shutting off during the school day.
"It was working at first and then it shuts off. This is kind of challenging," said Clemons, with Noah on her lap drinking from a bottle. "I wish they would be at school."
Andrews says both the shelter and Clemons contacted the Taylor School District about devices shutting off.
"We're providing her with additional Wi-Fi and using these computers as a backup plan," Andrews said.
Taylor school interim superintendent Mark Kleinhans said the district learned its Wi-Fi devices were running out of data about two weeks into schools in September, and acted quickly to upgrade the devices and increase their allowances.
"We spent considerable dollars, COVID money, and that is what it is for," Kleinhans said. "No one has come to me and said there is no money for additional minutes. We have 5,000 students. I'm sure there are families that could have had issues. When we found out, we upped the minutes. We work very hard to make this work."
Kleinhans said the number of homeless students is on the rise in his district in Wayne County.
"Our homeless liaison said it has doubled, and she is getting new referrals weekly," Kleinhans said. "We are seeing a significant increase, and whenever a referral is made, we are reaching out and doing whatever we can do to reach the families."
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