COVID-19 and crowded spaces: the not-so-easy start of virtual learning for homeless students

Photo showing a laptop that says "learning" on the screen with students out of focus in the background

Photo courtesy of Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

Homeless K-12 students need more than just a device and access to an internet hotspot to succeed in the upcoming fall semester. They face a unique set of challenges that not only make in-person learning hard, but make virtual learning almost impossible.  There were 7,728 homeless students in D.C. public and public charter schools during the 2018-19 school year, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

District officials have resources in place to help homeless students, but local organizations and teachers are pushing for more support services to help students successfully navigate virtual learning. D.C. Public Schools will do entirely virtual learning for the Aug. 31 – Nov. 6. term, Mayor Bowser announced on July 30. 

“Online teaching is an art form, and you can’t just thrust a population of people into online teaching,” said Cliff Rogers, the program director at The Covenant House Greater Washington, which provides short-term housing, workforce training, and wrap-around services for homeless youth ages 18-24. 

In a D.C. Public Schools technology survey with over 13,125 responses, the largest segment of parents, 44%, said their student did not have access to a device. The District plans to give internet access and devices to all students in need. Only 9% of parents said their student had access to a DCPS-issued device at the time of the survey. At one school, the Takoma Education Campus, parents concerned about DCPS’s ability to provide for students, raised money to buy remote learning devices on their own, reported Washington City Paper.

Pie chart showing 44% of students did not have access to a device, 31% of students had access to a personal laptop/Chromebook, 16% of students had access to a personal tablet, and 9% of students had access to a DCPS-issued device.
Data and graphic courtesy of DCPS

For students experiencing homelessness, having access to a digital device is only one small step to seeing success while taking an online class, according to Rogers. He said homeless students need access to mental health support and a quiet environment. Without those things, it is difficult for learning to take place. 

“I tell people to try to do an online class on the phone and tell me how effective that can be,” Rogers said. “Try to do an online class in the middle of being outside in the 90 degree weather; tell me how that’s going to help your concentration and your sound.” 

Rogers and his team is working to create a balanced learning environment for all students who live at Covenant House, including an art program. This fall, Rogers hopes that he will be able to get more volunteers to help with mental health support, meal options, and employment. 

Other organizations, like The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, strive to create fun and safe places for children so that they can cope with some of the stress that comes along with homelessness. 

The Playtime Project partners with local homeless shelters to set up playtime programs, preteen programs, or field trip programs for children. Trained volunteers provide children with snacks, toys, and activities so that they can recover from the stress of homelessness. 

“Every three weeks or so, we distribute Playtime-to-Go kits to more than 125 children living in our four partner shelter sites,” said Jamila Larson, the executive director of The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. “Parents also receive a ‘Parent Survival Guide’ with online resources and activities that can be done in their rooms with few or no materials.”

There are reusable toys, books, and art activities inside the kits, Larson said. Despite efforts to keep children engaged, she acknowledges that the environments in shelters make learning difficult. 

“The traditional shelter system does not see children as people experiencing homelessness worthy of their own services and supports,” Larson said. “Instead, they typically see them more like luggage their parents bring into shelter.”

DCPS teachers are also getting involved in the push to accommodate homeless students in the upcoming school year. Two hundred and seventy members of the Washington Teachers’ Union published a report in June that outlined support tools to help students dealing with unique living situations. The 20-page document includes recommendations for schools on how to properly deal with parents who are afraid to ask for a device, homeless students, students who are immigrants, and various cultural differences. It also includes guidelines on support structures for all grade levels and for students with children.

“We need to have a social and emotional support structure set up in the beginning of the school year for all students, especially for those students that are homeless,” said Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union. Before taking the reins of WTU in 2014, Davis taught for 40 years in seven different schools across the District. “Some of these students were experiencing trauma before COVID-19 and we have no idea what some of them have experienced, so for us to jump into instruction and teaching in the beginning of the year would be absolutely insensitive.”

Within the report, WTU members asked for “socio-emotional programming and resources” for students, teachers, and staff. The union would like DCPS to allow teachers to be flexible with scheduling so they may check-in with families. Since students will not be in the classroom, WTU asks that there be a center for technology support and a place where families can pick up supplies such as paper and crayons. 

Members of WTU would also like DCPS to provide families with technology support guides in multiple languages, to “accelerate” its Empowered Learners Initiative to provide devices to students, and invest in Wi-Fi access for at-risk communities. “As the DCPS closed schools in March, DCPS estimated that approximately 30% of all students needed a device. WTU estimates indicated a higher need as we began distance learning,” the report says. Surveys of WTU members in April and again in June showed that less than half of students were regularly logging into their classes.  

Two pie charts, one comparing survey results from April and June. Each category has changed by plus or minus 1 percent at a maximum. The June results show that 30.9% of teachers had students regularly logging in to class 25050% of the time, 28.5% of teachers had students regularly logging into class less than 25% of the time, 21.8% of teachers had students regularly logging into class 50-75% of the time, and 18.8% of teachers had students logging into class more than 75% of the time.
Data and graphics courtesy of the Washington Teachers Union

The WTU report suggests many families struggled to access “adequate and appropriate” devices and that many do not have and cannot afford Wi-Fi. Others struggle with understanding how to use the technology, including websites and apps for learning, according to WTU. 

D.C. Public Schools did not respond to an interview request. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education said they are giving homeless students the proper sources to succeed. According to the DCPS technology survey, 2,405 parents said their student did not have access to a hotspot or reliable high-speed internet and needed additional support and 657 reported already having access to a DCPS-issued hotspot. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said their student had reliable high-speed internet without a DCPS hotspot.

Pie chart showing 77% of students have access to reliable high-speed internet without a DCPS hotpsot, 18% of students do not have access to a hotspot or reliable high-speed internet and need additinoal service support, and 5% of students have access to a DCPS-issued hotspot.
Data and graphic courtesy of DCPS

“OSSE’s Homeless Education Program helps connect local education agency (LEA) and school-based homeless liaisons to resources within the District to support students experiencing homelessness,” Fred Lewis, a spokesperson for OSSE, wrote in an email to Street Sense Media. “The McKinney-Vento Act requires LEAs to ensure that students experiencing homelessness have equal access to such opportunities and remove barriers for these students in accessing academic activities.”

Teachers who work with students who are homeless and need extra assistance in the classroom are under more pressure to get the proper resources to students as they try to engage in distance learning. Kader Nsiri, a special education teacher at Takoma Education Campus, called it a “transportation issue,” saying that the food and services children used to be able to access in school must still be provided. 

Nsiri, who is also a WTU member, said DCPS should visit students where they live to ask parents what they need help with for their children to succeed in school. He criticized the gap in resources for students in wealthier school districts and those in poorer school districts.

“We should be doing the right thing,” Nsiri said. 

Issues |Community|Education|Health, Physical|Income Inequality|Youth

Region |Washington DC

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