We Aren’t Making the Grade

The pandemic is highlighting the digital divide for homeless students.

Most K-12 school sites in Los Angeles County will remain closed due to the pandemic, at least for the beginning of the fall semester.

So students here, like in many other states, need to continue to adapt to online learning. But the lack of high-speed internet and access to computers makes education particularly difficult for one group: students without homes.

“It’s a pretty scary thing right now because we know that the learning gap is just getting bigger and bigger,” said Martha Dietzel, a marketing and partnerships specialist for the nonprofit School on Wheels, which provides free tutoring and mentoring to homeless children from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Students without a place to call home are three times more likely to be placed in special education, four times more likely to drop out of school entirely and nine times more likely to repeat a grade, according to data from School on Wheels.

When the pandemic forced in-person teaching to a halt, such students were once again placed in a precarious learning environment. The California Department of Education counted 274,460 students without a reliable place to sleep in the state and 67,195 such students in Los Angeles County during the 2018-2019 school year—and the number of homeless students has been increasing in recent years.

Most of those students live in shelters, group foster homes, motels, vehicles, live with other families, or sleep outdoors.

“It is very stressful not having a physical classroom to go to or the necessary technology to learn remotely, while their parents are dealing with job loss and worrying about how to feed their children,” said Pamela Gripp, a volunteer in School on Wheels.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is that the schools are underprepared for this situation. Even though there is a legal obligation for them to provide equal access to students, it’s just that on the ground … it’s taking longer than it should,” said Dietzel.

She mentioned a survey done with parents and shelter sites showed that at the start of the pandemic, more than 60% of the students in her organization didn’t have regular access to the internet and computers for any distance learning.

Dietzel also emphasized that homeless students often transition from school to school or shelter to shelter, so many of them can’t focus on their schooling somewhere in a sustained way. Most suffered from learning gaps even before the pandemic.

Homeless students who face frequent moves are less likely to build close relationships with their classmates and develop supportive relations with their teachers, according to the Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness.

In many cases, homeless students choose not to tell their teachers and classmates what they have been through or are still going through. So even though there are resources available, they aren’t aware of them.

In addition, not only do such students find it difficult to fit in with their peers due to their constantly changing learning environments, but they are also more likely to face academic setbacks due to the lack of educational stability. Research shows that every time a student transfers to a new school, they lose four to six months of education.

“When people think of homelessness, they don’t usually think of students,” said Angela Sánchez, the author of the children’s book “Scruffy and the Egg.” “It’s not a population that people usually consider, and the truth is everyone has a lot of assumptions about what someone experiencing homelessness is supposed to look like.”

“There are many different populations that experience homelessness, which includes kids, families, teenagers and college students too,” she added.

Sánchez’s father lost his job at the onset of the Great Recession, and in November of that year, they hopped from one motel to another. One day in January when her father’s credit ran out, they began to move from one shelter to another. Those were Sánchez’s junior and senior years of high school.

Sánchez did her schoolwork before going home or between classes since she didn’t have access to the internet at the shelter. It was a difficult time for her to study, but she could at least use the computers at school and connect to free WiFi in libraries.

When the pandemic hit schools, libraries and other public spaces that provided internet access, homeless students lost their access.

Sánchez believes the digital divide has hurt homeless students more harshly than before because all classes are now online. Many homeless students are not able to access resources and their assignments either because they don’t have the right digital devices, they don’t have access to a suitable environment where they can take classes virtually, or they face difficulties using technology products.

A Los Angeles Unified School District report shows that only 8% of homeless students in middle school and 10% of those in high school had a “high participation” rate. The percentage of homeless students who didn’t participate in school at all was 44% and 35 % in middle school and high school, respectively.

LAUSD has facilitated learning at home by helping to ensure that students have a device and internet access at home. The District purchased more than 185,000 new devices and over 35,000 internet hotspots for students in need. It has also partnered with local internet providers who have offered free internet access for households who did not previously have it since March 16.

The greatest problems are when there is no “house.” Children without homes often get no help, or it comes too late. For students with unstable lives in shelters, group foster homes, or in vehicles, the internet is generally unavailable. For those staying in motels, the WIFI connections can be unreliable. Such students often cannot regularly attend classes or complete their homework.

“It was three months before my student got a laptop from his school,” said Dietzel. He didn’t receive the laptop until May, and then the school took back much of the hardware when the academic year ended the following month. “So, he only had the laptop for a very brief window.”

And during the time when he had a laptop, the district also had to help supply a WIFI hotspot because the shelter that he was at didn’t provide internet access, she said.

There are other obstacles. “There is paperwork involved and families — and especially families that speak English as a second language — don’t feel comfortable reaching out to the principal,” said Dietzel. “They don’t feel comfortable asking for what they need.”

Even if a homeless student is able to get a computer and a hotspot, their parents might still choose to give up the right to it because they are afraid of damaging the device and getting a fine. “We had a student whose school said 'We’ll give you a computer, but if anything happens, you owe us $300. The mom was like I don’t want to take that responsibility,” said Dietzel. “Schools are loaning out devices, but the families are worried about damaging those devices.”

The end result, she noted, is that the digital divide has seriously affected homeless students' education rights.

Dolores Daniel, the employment specialist at the Santa Barbara Transition House, pointed out that when parents are not “strong technology users,” even though they receive a laptop and a hotspot, they can hardly help their kids connect to the virtual classroom.

Ricardo Rosales, the director of the Midnight Mission’s HomeLight Family Living Program, emphasized that it is challenging for parents who aren’t familiar with technology to help their kids.

Even though the organization provides Microsoft tutorials, Rosales said it’s hard to teach people when they don’t know the basics. “They not only need online tutorials but also live instructions that help them.”

Without proper devices, learning environments and a basic understanding of how to use the internet, homeless students struggle to participate in online learning and engage in classes. “We have to advocate on behalf of our families,” said Dietzel.

As homeless students typically come from low-income neighborhoods where they have the least infrastructure, the worst schools and the fewest resources, Rosales said, cities and the state as a whole need to invest more there to make computers and online access available to every student.

“I think everyone has to step up,” said Rosales.