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San Diego Unified hands out free food and meals to families outside Clark Middle School after announcing it would close schools to stop the spread of the coronavirus. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

School officials are working in overdrive to reach homeless students who haven’t yet connected with their teachers to begin online learning amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are looking to contact those students by any means necessary” said Aliya Weise from San Diego High School during a teleconference with Assemblyman Todd Gloria earlier this month. Weise said when phone and email contacts on file don’t work, officials reach out to peers to see if they can reach missing students on social media. “It has become a 24-hour, seven-day a week endeavor.”

As schools transition to purely online classes to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, the homeless student population is at risk of falling behind their peers who can more easily log on to connect with teachers.

San Diego Unified’s homeless student population topped 8,000 students in 2019, according to district records.

San Diego Unified spokeswoman Maureen Magee said in an email the district is now reaching out to homeless shelters and community organizations to try to reach more of them who have yet to log online.

A full picture is not yet available of just how many of San Diego Unified’s 105,000 or so students are logging on or slipping through the cracks during the district’s soft launch of its new online learning programs.

Such a program is still being developed, but, “principals, teachers, counselors and other employees are collaborating to reach students. In some cases, community partners and employees working to distribute meals and computers to students have also helped with this effort as they come into contact with families on a near-daily basis,” Magee said.

Despite multiple attempts, Mark Schwarz, a fifth-grade teacher at Alice Birney Elementary, still hasn’t had any luck reaching one of his homeless students, nor 15 other students in his 29-student class, which is on a year-round schedule. Schwarz’s concerns are heightened for his homeless student.

“Our concern is that both parents are prime targets for the disease, and we have no way of knowing where he is, with (or without) who, and how to get in touch with them,” Schwarz wrote in an email to VOSD.

San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten told Gloria during the teleconference that the homeless shelter Father Joe’s Villages got in touch with the district to try to ensure homeless students in its shelter could log on to access their classwork.

Officials with Father Joe’s said their families were getting rides to pick up devices from San Diego Unified – which is working to distribute 40,000 Chromebooks to students in the coming weeks before graded work starts April 27. (Grades can only go up for the rest of the year).

But 25 San Diego Unified students living in Father Joe’s shelter were unable to connect to the internet on the devices using the two-month free Cox program suggested by the district because it required a residential address. Computer labs onsite are currently closed.

After speaking with San Diego Unified officials, the district agreed to provide Wi-Fi hotspots at the shelter so students could connect, said Jesse Casement, division director of client services for Father Joe’s.

“We are really grateful to the district for making that happen,” Casement said.

District officials said they gave Father Joe’s 20 hotspots.

Casement said the shelter is housing another five children who attend charter schools in San Diego, 12 children who attend the Monarch School, which specializes in educating homeless youth, and a few others attend schools in El Cajon and Chula Vista.

Three students attending the Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista will also get laptops and hotspots, and the Monarch School already gave out computer devices, Casement said.

In some ways, the struggle to shift to purely online learning for families in the shelter are the same as most families, said Casement, with a steep learning curve for parents unfamiliar with Chromebooks and curriculum. She also hopes policies adopted by San Diego Unified and others to only allow student grades to improve the rest of the year may help.

“This is really a great opportunity for our kids who may have fallen behind to get caught up and make as much progress as they can,” she said.

But in other ways, the change will be harder for them.

“Our families are survivors and resilient,” but “homelessness itself is stressful,” said Casement. Add homeschooling and kids home all day and “it’s a lot. … But the families on the street … I can’t fathom what they are feeling right now.”

Greg Anglea, CEO of Escondido-based Interfaith Community Services, which works with North County families on the street and has four emergency apartments, said education is not the top concern for homeless families with school-age children right now.

“Having internet access and ‘complete lesson 24 of the online app,’ that is not top of mind for a lot of the families we are working with,” Anglea said. “The conversations we are having with them are not around education. They are around, ‘Do you have enough food for dinner tonight?’ Most (adults) have been laid off. ‘Do you know how to file unemployment benefits?’ and helping to navigate that process.”

Normally, Interfaith works with 90 high school students directly at school sites in Oceanside and Carlsbad. Those students, he said, currently have devices and internet access and “should be able to complete their distance learning,” though some may only have access on a smart phone.

He suggests schools looking for homeless students use meal pickups they’ve continued to try to reach them.

“As we think about distance learning, start with food and shelter and have that conversation, then you can follow up with education,” he said.

Anglea fears some of the worst is yet to come, and expects the crowds coming for basic need assistance – which have already doubled from normal levels in the last three weeks – will continue to grow.

“The larger tidal wave is coming months down the road when low income families who can barely make ends meet during good times are forced to get caught up on rent that has been delayed. Not forgiven, but delayed. … And there will be thousands of families that will need help.”

Casement, with Father Joe’s, suggests schools leave a message for families at local shelters. They won’t be able to confirm the student is there unless there is a release on file giving them permission to do so, but shelter staff can pass the message along.

Marten, the San Diego Unified superintendent, said the move online has already cost the district $18 million so far. Among other things, she said the district has had to buy more software licenses, as well as extra computer devices, chargers and headphones.

To extend the school year into summer to make up for lost time would cost $52 million Marten said, roughly the amount she and the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified asked the state for soon after school closures began. That request has not yet been granted.

Ashly McGlone

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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