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Distance learning while homeless in the Twin Cities: It’s complicated and challenging

How Minneapolis and St. Paul districts are supporting their homeless and highly mobile populations during the outset of this school year. 

Students doing schoolwork from home during the global coronavirus outbreak.
Students doing schoolwork from home during the global coronavirus outbreak.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Osh has two kids, ages 11 and 12, who are enrolled in the St. Paul Public Schools district. They both officially started distance learning last week. To access classes, they work on their school-issued devices, using his cellphone as an internet hotspot. And when they’re not doing school, they’re navigating life at a St. Paul-based shelter for those experiencing homelessness.

“We’ve been adapting to it, to be honest,” said Osh, who asked that we use only his first name. “But I just can’t imagine for other families that don’t have internet. And for families that don’t really spend the time with their kids.”

He’s pretty much blocked out Monday through Thursday — the four days a week that his kids are scheduled to receive new content — on his calendar, to ensure he can support and monitor their learning. This new setup means he has less time to take care of other pressing things like appointments and job searching during the week. 

“I have to use that time to pretty much educate my kids,” he said, adding he’d really like for them to physically be back at school, but he also doesn’t want to see any kids getting sick with COVID-19. 

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Socially, his kids miss their teachers. But they’re staying connected with peers through social media. He’s always worried there could come a time when he can no longer pay his phone bill, though — and stresses over how that would disrupt their school year. When his kids received their school-issued devices, he’d assumed they’d come paired with a hotspot, or some other internet access solution. But, in his experience, that wasn’t the case. And so he made do, taking on that financial burden himself. 

It’s the sort of resource barrier that districts are working to remove for many families. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools districts say they are checking in with their homeless and highly mobile families, to see if they still qualify for added services this year. But even that first step — simply connecting and sharing resources that are available, like hotspots — can be complicated, especially during a virtual-only start to the school year. Here’s a closer look at how both Twin Cities districts are supporting their homeless and highly mobile populations during distance learning at the outset of this school year. 

Connecting virtually

Both districts have staff members who focus specifically on identifying and connecting with students and families who are experiencing homelessness. And at the outset of any school year, a lot of their efforts go into identifying who qualifies for services under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, a law stipulating added supports and services for students experiencing homelessness.

That list includes all school-aged youth “who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” as defined in statute. That includes kids in a number of living situations: those doubled up in homes with others because they lack their own housing, those living in hotels or motels because there’s no affordable housing available, those camping or living out of a vehicle, those living in shelters and those literally living on the streets — escaping the elements at night by finding shelter in a public space. 

In the St. Paul district, Anne McInerney, supervisor of the district’s Project REACH program, says they generally identify around 2,000 qualifying students each school year, who experience homelessness at some point in the school year. That’s between 5% and 6% of the total student population. Once they self-identify and complete the paperwork — which guarantees access to things like free school meals and transportation to their school building, even as they move between shelters or stay with different family members and friends — they are enrolled for the remainder of the school year. 

Every summer, though, that list gets zeroed out, McInerney said. Everyone has to requalify for the next school year. That means she and her team — along with the help of school social workers — are busy checking in with families that qualified the prior year, to get updates on their current housing status, and following up with new referrals that come through school social workers and shelters. The logistics are made a bit more complicated by the virtual work-from-home setup. Normally, all referrals would go through an online database, she says. But that system isn’t accessible from home, so McInerney says she’s handling all referrals through email. So far, the number of students identified for services is a couple hundred shy of what she’d expect during a normal fall. She suspects some families aren’t self-identifying right now because they’re not needing to worry about transportation now, and the eviction moratorium has stabilized housing situations for some as well. “That being said, we’re kind of bracing for when the eviction moratorium gets lifted,” she said. “I think it’s going to be more like a tidal wave of evictions.”

Likewise, any return to in-person learning could lead to an uptick in numbers as well, as students who are currently doubled up with other families outside of their school’s transportation boundaries may look to enroll to secure transportation as well. 

Charlotte Kinzley, manager of the Minneapolis district’s homeless/highly mobile student services, says counts are down in her district as well this fall. Last year they identified 2,350 students — a total smaller than the year prior, partly due to a drop during the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year, during the initial round of distance learning. That’s still roughly 6 percent of the total student population. 

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Over the summer, her team had been reaching out to families that qualified last year. Now that the school year is under way, that task falls more on the shoulders of school social workers, she said. “Without the requests for transportation, I do think we’re maybe hearing about situations less often,” she said.  

Tech resources and more

Prior to the pandemic and resulting shift to distance learning, the St. Paul Public Schools district had already deployed a one-to-one iPad program, districtwide. District staff still had to troubleshoot internet access issues with families — and McInerney says she and her team have been helping deliver hotspots and devices to students who may be doubled up with other families in neighboring communities. But having that technology piece in place certainly made for a smoother transition. 

In the Minneapolis district, students experiencing homelessness were among the hardest hit last spring. When schools shut down and all learning got pushed to a virtual format in March, Kinzley says her team identified about 1,600 students, out of about 1,900, without access to a computer or internet. “We had that gap to fill in a very short amount of time,” she said, noting engagement data dropped off initially and began to pick up again around week three, once more devices and hotspots had been distributed. 

“We’re in a much better place this fall, but there are so many other barriers to engagement, beyond just making sure people have what they need,” she said. 

Heading into the 2020-2021 school year, she and her team have been taking a pretty individualized approach, connecting with families to see how they can help remove barriers to distance learning. Sometimes that means sending a staff member out to a family, so they can borrow a cellphone, or arranging a cab so a parent can access registration or another school service. Beyond that, it’s more so a matter of getting word out about the various resources available to families — things like free school meal delivery for those unable to coordinate a curb-side pickup, and access to rental assistance through the Stable Homes, Stable Schools initiative, a partnership between the city, the district and other local entities. 

Beyond that, Kinzley says she and her team will be keeping close tabs on engagement data, so they can intervene early on — to figure out what barriers need to be removed — in order for the district’s homeless and highly mobile students to stay connected, and succeed. 

“We all are concerned, particularly about this student group, knowing that there are so many barriers, already in place, to learning,” she said. “With distance learning, it becomes all the more challenging.” 

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