Rising above their class: How local homeless students get their education during the pandemic

Education

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — School without a classroom — and school without a home.

The health concerns surrounding the pandemic and the need to go to virtual classes are two major hurdles for students as they begin the new year. Add homelessness to that, and a student faces even more challenges.

Each of the seven cities has hundreds of students who are homeless. Now that we’re not using regular classrooms for the time being, outreach to those students and getting them the right technology is more important than ever.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools work with Project Hope and the Jumpstart program, which train teachers to ask the right questions at the beginning of the school year to identify children who are homeless.

“Have they moved a lot? Does the child say they’re not sure what their address is? Are they acting hungry?” are some of the questions Jumpstart Coordinator Gay Thomas wants teachers to ask.

When a teacher, social worker or other staff member discovers a homeless child, “we’re going to automatically put them on free- and reduced-lunch, so they get that right away,” Thomas said.

A social worker will then contact the parent. Often, that leads to a local hotel.

“They can’t afford any other place to live, and it’s usually quite overcrowded, and we see more than one family in hotel rooms together,” Thomas said. “So they don’t necessarily have that privacy to do their work, and they may not have that consistent internet connectivity.”

Dr. Michele Mitchell, executive director of student advancement at Newport News Public Schools, says her team works with area hotels where homeless students are likely to live.

“[We’ve] actually met with the managers at the hotels and even asked … ‘Is there a quiet place, is there a different place, do you have a small conference room?'” she said.

Project Hope wants to change the way a homeless student appears in a Zoom room. They will look into placing a virtual background behind the student.

“So that somebody’s not seeing other people who are in the household or in the hotel, or that others can’t tell that they’re in a hotel,” Thomas said.

Mitchell says the only way to reach and educate homeless kids is using a team approach.

“We work with agencies to help them find housing, we work with agencies to help with the food and the clothing.”

Dr. Patricia Popp is able to see the big picture in Virginia as the state coordinator for homeless education.

“For probably the last four years or so, Virginia schools have identified over 20,000 children per year as children experiencing homelessness,” Popp said.

Popp expects those numbers to rise.

“There are a number of families who are definitely going to return to homelessness, or new families, as a result of all of the economic stressors related to the pandemic,” she said.

Popp says although a family may be on the move, school divisions strive to keep the student in the same school of origin as long as it’s in the student’s best interest.

Dr. LaQuiche Parrott, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Virginia Beach Schools, says the pandemic has made it paramount for staff to make sure homeless students have a level playing field when it comes to technology.

“We need to see who needs internet, who’s still in need of hotspots and who’s having internet connectivity issues,” Parrott said.

Both the Virginia Beach and Portsmouth school divisions, like so many others right now, provide devices and hot spots to students who are homeless.

Once the $600 enhanced unemployment payments ended a little over a month ago, schools were fearing an upswing in evictions and foreclosures. Educators say they won’t know if that’s the case until this week, when they start asking those key questions and reaching out to families.


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