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School closures leave homeless students even more vulnerable

There are more than 1.5 million homeless public school students in the United States. But with many of those young people relying on school for safety, stability and food, the mass closures of school buildings all over the country due to the coronavirus have left them even more vulnerable than before. NewsHour Weekend’s Zachary Green reports as part of our series, “Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America.”

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  • Zachary Green:

    21-year old college senior Jaime Waldron didn't always think of herself as homeless. Orphaned at 15 when her mom died, she found shelter with some aunts and, finally, an older cousin. But while she was living on-campus at UMass Lowell, he and his wife had a baby, and their two-bedroom house wasn't big enough to accommodate Waldron when school was out of session.

  • Jaime Waldron:

    And I was like not sure where I was gonna live. And then I went to a resident director of my building actually, and he put me in contact with—one of the deans at my school.

  • Zachary Green:

    During Waldron's sophomore year, that dean helped her get accepted into the Massachusetts Student Housing Security Pilot. It's a state program that funds year-round campus housing and meal plans for a handful of homeless state and community college students. For the time-being, Waldron felt secure. She got a job at a local grocery store and took enough credits that she was on track to graduate a year early this may. But things changed, when the coronavirus hit the us—and her college campus shut down.

  • Jaime Waldron:

    And no one was really sure about housing. Even the housing department wasn't sure about housing, because they weren't sure if they would have to—have everyone leave or not. And so, I'm like—I was like emailing people and calling, and no one had any answers.

  • Zachary Green:

    In late March after spring break, UMass Lowell told students who had gone home to remain there for the rest of the school year and take courses online. But Waldron's status allowed her to remain on-campus—along with 260 other students with nowhere else to go, or whose families lived too far away. But Waldron's troubles are far from over.

  • Jaime Waldron:

    I now buy more groceries than I ever would have before, because I was using my meal plan for the main meals a day. Spending money on food that I wouldn't—didn't plan on spending money on was definitely really hard.

  • Zachary Green:

    Waldron is not alone. A 2019 survey of nearly one hundred sixty-seven thousand college students by the Hope Center For College, Community, and Justice found that 17 percent of respondents described themselves as homeless—that's about twenty-eight thousand students. And that was before the pandemic closed student housing around the country. Annie Ciaraldi is associate dean of students at UMass Lowell. She says the homeless students she's worked with can only improvise.

  • Annie Ciaraldi:

    They may be couch-surfing. They may be living in their cars. So, their biggest concerns are, "Where am I gonna shower? Where am I doing laundry? Where do I get my food? How am I gonna cook food," if they're not, you know, a secure environment.

  • Zachary Green:

    Ciaraldi says that one of the biggest issues currently facing homeless students not living on-campus is the loss of everyday resources the college offers.

  • Annie Ciaraldi:

    A lot of our students who are homeless will shower at our campus rec center or will do their laundry in a residence hall or will eat in a dining hall. And all those things don't exist for them anymore. So, if you live in your car, you're tryin' to figure out: Where is all that gonna come from?

  • Zachary Green:

    It isn't just homeless college students losing access to school resources. Across the country, roughly one hundred twenty-four thousand public and private elementary and high schools have been shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the school districts closed, New York City's is the largest. More than one hundred fourteen thousand of its million students are homeless. One of them is J'Marion Brown, a 14-year old high school freshman. He's lived with his parents and three younger sisters at this Bronx homeless shelter for four months. Since school closed it's mostly all he sees.

  • J’Marion Brown:

    I stay in my unit the whole time. I don't really, like, leave unless I'm going to the store.

  • Zachary Green:

    In order to help homeless students keep up with coursework online, the New York City Department of Education has distributed sixteen thousand iPads to kids in shelters all over the city. J'Marion and his sisters each received one. But when I spoke with him last month, he said they couldn't use them. Like many shelters throughout the city, theirs does not have Wi-Fi.

  • Zachary Green:

    Are you able to keep up with your assignments at all?

  • J’Marion Brown:

    Yes. But that's only for the—packs they gave me before school was canceled. All my other work that's on the computers, I can't do it yet.

  • Zachary Green:

    Estrella Montanez is the residence director at J'Marion's shelter, which is part of BronxWorks, one of the largest shelter networks in New York City. When I spoke with her in March, she said many students there had fallen behind due to a lack of connectivity.

  • Estrella Montanez:

    There was a lot of anxiety around—"What is this going to mean? How is this going to count against us?" Some of our families were also being—sent messages, like, from teachers that, you know, "Your children are being marked absent because they're not accessing the online—you know, online assignments." And it's just like, there's nothing they could do at that point.

  • Zachary Green:

    Chris Caruso is the executive director for the Office of Community Schools at New York City's Department of Education. He says that online absences won't count against homeless students and that they now have connectivity.

  • Chris Caruso:

    We knew it was going to take some time to get the distribution chain and get access to the devices to all the students living in shelter. And we have since eliminated that digital divide and every student shelter now has a device. Each of these devices is already equipped with Internet access. So the strength of the signal, the Wi-Fi access point does not matter at all. Literally, you can use these any place, anytime.

  • Zachary Green:

    He says that the city is taking additional measures to make sure that its most vulnerable students don't fall behind.

  • Chris Caruso:

    We have 400 meal hubs across the city and we're giving out two hundred fifty thousand meals each day. Four million meals have been given out since schools physically closed. Not only can families show up and get grab and go breakfast, lunch and dinner, but for many of our shelters, we're arranging food transportation, so that students and families can get them onsite.

  • Zachary Green:

    In an email, Estrella Montanez told NewsHour Weekend most students at her residence—including J'Marion Brown—now have iPads with data plans. But she also says that "connectivity is very slow for many" and that some iPads "had to be replaced because the internet just stopped connecting and that took about a week or more." In a response to NewsHour Weekend, the city's Department of Education said that they "are aware of isolated instances of connectivity challenges in certain shelters". They also said they are "working directly with the Department of Homeless Services… Apple, and T-Mobile… to address individual issues as they arise". Meanwhile, back in Lowell, Massachusetts, associate dean of students Annie Ciaraldi says that since UMass Lowell closed shop, at least five additional students have come to her to disclose their homeless status.

  • Annie Ciaraldi:

    Thankfully we have a very caring and giving community at UMass Lowell. And so, we work it out, somehow, all the time. But, you know, my fear is that there are a lot more out there than we know of. I'm—I'm positive of it. And eventually, we won't be able to—we won't have the resources to, you know, address all of them.

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