‘I miss my teachers’: Already on the margins, homeless students hit hard by shuttered schools

Educators say some older teens are essentially dropping out during pandemic

A woman in a red shirt stands in front of trees.
Patricia Bass, 19, wants to graduate from high school in the spring. But without stable housing and a pandemic that has forced schools to closed, Bass, pictured in Minnetonka, Minn., on Saturday, April 25, 2020, said it's hard to stay motivated.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Patricia Bass has goals. She wants to graduate from high school in the spring. She wants her own place. She wants to become a social worker some day.

But with unstable housing — and a pandemic that forced Minnesota schools to shutter for the rest of the academic year — it hasn’t been easy for her to focus on how she’ll get there. A fraught relationship with her mother over the past few months has forced her to hop between her aunt’s house, friends’ places and her boyfriend’s home.

Bass, 19, is a student at the alternative high school program at North Education Center, a school in New Hope that serves students who may not be on track to graduate. Before the coronavirus outbreak, whatever her address was, she always found a way to hop on a bus and go to school. 

Then COVID-19 hit and schools closed.

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“I miss the teachers,” she said. “I miss interacting with my teachers.”

The disruption has left Bass and many other teens experiencing homelessness without the stability, routine and support of school. It has forced them to navigate distance learning on their own while also dealing with the trauma that homelessness brings.

Bass likes some aspects of distance learning. She can grab her computer and do her work anywhere. But it’s stressful to try to find an apartment. She has a job, but with no credit or rental history, it’s tough to secure a place.

The high school senior said she also lost her grandmother to COVID-19 during the first week of distance learning, so she was grieving that loss and didn’t get any homework done. After that, she got back into it, logging onto Google Hangouts for classes and emailing teachers with her questions

Still, she said, it’s hard to stay engaged.

“The motivation is not there,” Bass said. “I just get this feeling that I just don’t want to do this right now. And I need to stop getting that feeling.”

One-month mark

Distance learning is now required for students across Minnesota for the rest of the school year. Gov. Tim Walz announced last week that schools will stay closed to slow the spread of COVID-19. This week marks one month since educators began distance learning. School leaders and state officials acknowledge that the burden is falling heavily on students who were already on the margins.

“Living through this unprecedented time is a traumatic experience,” Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan said on Friday. “And for those who’ve experienced trauma before, this is reigniting that trauma in unimaginable ways.” 

Flanagan added that that the pandemic has “laid bare” the inequities in Minnesota’s education system, with many families’ struggles falling along racial, class and ethnic lines.

Virtual classes have been new and tricky for educators and families all across the state, but it’s particularly challenging for students experiencing homelessness. Some don’t have access to the internet, a roof over their head or money to survive. Logging onto online classes isn’t always top of mind.

Educators say this further widens the achievement gap between the most vulnerable and the privileged. Research shows that Minnesota is one of the worst states in the country for education disparities affecting poor students and students of color.

Ben Drewelow, a teacher and instructional coach at North Education Center, received a text message from a student last week that seemed to sum up what it’s like for students experiencing homelessness.

The student expressed his frustration with distance learning, saying he doesn’t have time to get on a computer due to family troubles and unstable housing. The student also said he was worried he won’t graduate.

All Drewelow could do at that point was share words of encouragement, suggest that the two of them set up a time to connect, and agree that he, too, wishes school would reopen.

“The impact is really exacerbated for students that already may have struggled school-wise for whatever reasons,” Drewelow said. “It seems like it’s even harder in some cases now with remote teaching.”

Early elementary and high school seniors are especially vulnerable, Drewelow said, noting that some high school students in his district have by default dropped out. 

Access to technology

Schools have provided Chromebooks, iPads and hot spots for many families to help children and teens stay in touch with teachers and complete their assignments. But for some families staying in shelters, there’s no WiFi, the libraries are closed, and many other public WiFi areas aren’t an option under the state’s stay at- home order.

One of those families attends Idil Hassan’s school. The director of development for College Prep Elementary, a K-12 charter school in St. Paul, said about half of her families have yet to log onto the online platform the school has set up.

“We don’t really have a solution at this point,” Hassan said. “Let’s start with small steps, and the smallest step that I see is creating classrooms in every single homeless shelter, where the internet is protected so that other clients aren’t utilizing it and it’s open during the school hours.”

People Serving People, a large emergency family shelter in Minneapolis, has made it a priority to provide internet access to students currently living there. The shelter has housed around 250 people a night — 60 percent of them are children.

Daniel Gumnit, the organization’s chief executive officer, said they’ve closed all of their programs to implement social distancing, but kept the technology center open with a dozen computers for students to use. The shelter also has a quiet classroom available for students.

Even with those resources available, Gumnit said the trauma associated with homelessness affects children’s learning.

“The experience of being homeless in and of itself is very traumatic for children,” he said. “So with the amount of trauma that these families have experienced, that has a significant impact on their ability to do well in school.”

‘We should get our diplomas’

South High School sophomore Antiquita Flint does a practice interview.
In this photo from March 2018, Antiquita Flint does a practice interview with a trip chaperone inside the Northside Achievement Zone in north Minneapolis. Flint was one of 20 Minneapolis students selected by NAZ to go to the March for our Lives in Washington, D.C. that year.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

Antiquita Flint, 17, is living in transitional housing due to an unstable family situation. She’s now trying to finish her senior year at South High School in Minneapolis.

She’s also a food server at a nursing home, which puts her at a higher risk of getting the disease. With her hours cut, she makes just enough to barely cover rent and other basics. She doesn’t qualify for unemployment because she’s still in school.

A teen with long hair wearing a red jacket.
South High School senior Antiquita Flint, 17, lives in transitional housing and is trying to balance distance learning and work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy of Antiquita Flint

Flint said she has trouble turning her school work in on time, the workload has been too much for her to handle and she said she feels the teachers don’t understand the personal challenges she’s facing. 

“I can’t focus on school,” she said,“We have to sit at home during a pandemic that we all could possibly die from, and they want us to be on a computer.”

Flint and other seniors aren’t getting any of the rewards they’ve worked all high school for either: No prom, no graduation, no end-of-year hurrah. 

“At this point, we should get our diplomas,” she said. “This is stopping our life. We have other stuff going on. Nobody is understanding us.”