What it’s like to learn online from inside a homeless shelter

The teacher on the screen told Lashay to pick a country, then draw its flag and list three facts about it.

“A-l-g-e-r-i-a,” Lashay decided, even though she had never heard of it before. “And the first fact is that it’s beautiful.”

The eight children, gathered inside a converted living room area in the Serve Family Shelter in Prince William County, Va., represent a population of learners that educators and advocates say has been largely forgotten amid the devastation wrought across the country by the coronavirus pandemic.

The shift to online learning has drastically widened existing equity gaps in U.S. education, driving drops in attendance, college applications and academic performance among the nation’s most vulnerable students: children who are low-income, Black or Hispanic, as well as those with learning disabilities and those whose first language is not English. All too often, homeless children — of whom there are 2.5 million every year in America — combine these factors.

The shuttering of schools nationwide in March immediately shattered any semblance of stability for millions of homeless children who depend on schools for food, emotional support, or even just a warm, uncomplicated place to think. Trying to learn inside shelters for the past nine months, students have faced spotty WiFi, crowded rooms, high noise levels and harassment from some peers who deduce, over Zoom, that they lack a home.

Lashay Williams — and the seven children attending online school all around her — are actually among the luckier ones. The Serve Family Shelter, with 92 beds that make it among the largest family homeless shelters in Northern Virginia, received a $2.5 million investment two years ago from the Day 1 Families Fund, a program founded by Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott that gives grants to nonprofit organizations fighting homelessness. (Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, owns The Washington Post.)

By the time the pandemic arrived, enough money was left over from that windfall — in addition to money from Kaiser Permanente and the Cares Act — to fund the construction of a learning space, set up in a repurposed lounge-turned-children’s play area and replete with strengthened WiFi, desk shields and headphones. The shelter also bought reams of personal protective equipment, extra Chromebooks (in case children mislaid their school-provided devices) and hired three teachers, as well as a professional cleaning team that visits regularly to wipe down the makeshift classroom.

More typical are the challenges at shelters like Doorways in nearby Arlington, where another 7-year-old was sitting inside a small bedroom, on the bed itself, with a school-provided iPad balanced on his lap. His mother, 43-year-old Liby, had shoved the bed against the wall so the only thing her son’s teacher and fellow students could see, extending behind his head during virtual class, was a blank expanse of green wallpaper.

“I don’t want his teacher to figure out where he’s living,” said Liby, who joined Doorways — a shelter for the homeless, as well as those who have suffered domestic violence and sexual assault — in January after splitting from her abusive ex-husband.

Unlike Serve, Doorways did not have millions in funding to draw on when it was suddenly forced to begin functioning as a schoolhouse, as well as a shelter.

Alexis Love, a client service counselor for Doorways, said she and other staffers pivoted as best they could. They boosted the WiFi, which was struggling to accommodate the unprecedented flood of simultaneous users, and they set aside a downstairs conference room as a “quiet place” where children could go do schoolwork.

The background hum of Doorways, which serves up to 22 people at a time — representing between seven and eight families — sometimes includes screaming babies.

“Most of the kids actually preferred to be in their room, though,” Love said. “And our clients do have their own rooms — although the walls are thin, so you can hear people talking on the other side, which is definitely a challenge.”

The advent of online learning means it is easier than ever for homeless children to slip through cracks in the educational system, sinking beneath the virtual radars of stressed and overworked teachers and administrators. Parents, many of whom are consumed by the hunt for employment and a stable home, are often unable to advocate for their children, or to devote time, attention and resources to their learning.

“Really it’s been on parents who are supposed to be providing a virtual environment, so we knew nobody would be thinking about the kids here,” said Michael-Sean Adams, who runs Serve.

School officials in Northern Virginia, and nationwide, have gone to great lengths to reach vulnerable, struggling and low-income children. They have expanded Internet into school parking lots, provided families with WiFi hotspots and hand-delivered needed devices to households, including Chromebooks and iPads. They have also provided free breakfasts and lunches to millions every week since the coronavirus shuttered schools back in March.

But homeless children pose a unique challenge. Their parents are sometimes unwilling or unable to communicate their circumstances. Some shelters, for example those catering to victims of abuse, take pains to hide their location. So, if a homeless child drops off the screen, it can prove impossible to track them.

For Lashay, trouble began in early 2020, when one of her parents was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The other was forced to cut back on work to care for her. Then the coronavirus began spreading in the United States, and in short order, Lashay’s family lost their income, then their home.

Taped above the Serve fireplace is the slogan, “THE FUTURE OF THE WORLD IS IN THIS ROOM TODAY.”

Lashay’s eyes began to wander from her screen — and her right hand inched toward her colored marker. One of the hired teachers, Fairfax County Public Schools substitute teacher Amrata Sahasrabudhe, and her assistant, Devin Heilmeier, walked over.

Lashay noticed them approach.

“Can I please just finish this one?” she asked, pointing to a half-colored snowflake.

“Let’s watch this video,” Heilmeier replied, “and then you can finish that.”

‘I’m raising a leader’

At Doorways, Liby watched as her son clicked into the online portal for Arlington Public Schools.

She held herself ready to help in any way she could, even though English is not Liby’s first language, and she has often struggled to navigate Arlington’s seemingly endless, ever-changing, ceaselessly glitchy online learning portals. Recently, she’d started having nightmares that involved clicking through never-ending chains of nonfunctioning webpages.

And she’d developed a personal mantra: “I will make the best I can with what I have.”

Liby spoke on the condition that The Post not use her last name, and not name her son, out of fear that her ex-husband would identify and locate her.

Not long after Liby checked into Doorways, the pandemic cost her a job waiting tables at a restaurant in downtown D.C. Then her son began learning online, and Liby’s efforts to find new employment came to a complete halt.

Ever since March, her days have revolved around her boy: From 8:25 a.m. to 2 p.m., when he participates in online class, Liby is “just basically on call,” she said. Her son is bright and loves school, but virtual learning has proved a constant challenge.

The 7-year-old interrupts every five minutes with some new problem: “Sometimes I have to help with math, sometimes he has to enter a password,” Liby said. “Sometimes I have to talk to his teacher, like, ‘What do you want him to do?’ Because with a lot of kids talking over each other, it’s hard for him to catch on.”

But under her watchful eye, he has kept up his grades this year, at a time when so many students like him have slipped behind. The boy is reading at an advanced level and has continued to take fourth-grade level math courses, even though he’s only in second grade.

In general, the 7-year-old doesn’t get upset over much: He’s very “coachable,” Liby said, and used to adapting to new, sometimes difficult circumstances.

He hasn’t complained at all, for instance, about the way her lack of employment has reshaped their lifestyle — the way they get their groceries from a food bank and the Arlington Food Assistance Center now, for example. Or the fact that, for a while, getting exercise meant doing yoga alongside his mom in the shelter parking lot.

Right now, the boy is “crazy about dinosaurs,” Liby said. He won’t stop talking about the family vacation they took to Jurassic World when he was 4. That was the one and only family vacation they ever took, Liby said, before her husband turned abusive and “everything started falling down.”

Maybe, Liby tells herself, the boy is destined to become a world-famous paleontologist. She will sacrifice whatever she must to keep him learning.

“I always say, ‘I don’t have a son, I’m raising a leader,’ ” Liby said. “And this world, God knows, really needs leaders.”

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