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How Forsyth County schools are reaching homeless students during the pandemic
Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

The homeless student plans to attend college next school year. She wants to be a lawyer. 

But right now, she’s trying to balance life in a pandemic. Schools are closed but classes continue. Her job is calling her in to work 13-hour days. 

Even still, she’s maintaining a 4.1 grade-point average, said Kim Pluhar, the Forsyth County Schools’s homeless education liaison.

“They are finding a way to do things,” Pluhar said of the school district’s homeless student population. “They are finding the resiliency.”

Among the school district’s 50,000 students are 634 that are considered homeless, according to Pluhar, including 97 that qualify as “unaccompanied” as of January. 

In recent years, the school district has implemented several programs to serve homeless students. It offers tutoring to assist with overcoming academic gaps caused by homelessness. It created the position of a community youth liaison with The Place of Forsyth County, a local nonprofit that provides a host of services to those in need. It implemented the Orange Duffel Bag Initiative (ODBI), a life-coaching program for students that are certified homeless or in the foster care system.

The pandemic has affected those resources for local homeless students. The tutoring and current ODBI class are suspended (the school district plans to resume both in the fall), and the youth liaison is spending more time with The Place of Forsyth County as the organization’s services have been in greater demand during the pandemic.

To compensate, Pluhar and a network of school counselors, social workers, teachers and other staff have been working to maintain contact with one of the district’s most vulnerable populations.

“It’s just a matter of working together,” Pluhar said.

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Connecting with students has required a variety of methods. School staff call or send emails or text messages.

When staff first started reaching out to students, they made a basic assessment of each student’s situation.

“Obviously, our No. 1 concern when this happened was, A, is everyone safe?’” Pluhar said. “B, do you have food? And C, do you have access to the school system?”

Pluhar said nearly 400 of the district’s homeless students have requested food assistance. The school district has provided free meal delivery and drive-thru services since buildings closed March 13. About 40 students have needed help with housing.

Many others have required help with technology. According to the most recent federal data, 14% of school-aged children in the U.S. are without internet access at home, a huge barrier as school systems have transitioned to a remote learning environment during the pandemic.

Amy Chang, the school district’s Title I director, said FCS was well-positioned to meet its students’ needs. For the past few years, the district has used itslearning, an online education platform, during inclement weather days. And schools are stocked with supplies of Chromebooks and internet hotspot devices to check out, most of which were purchased with funds raised by the Morrow Community Foundation.

“It’s really set us up for success,” Chang said.

Still, teachers are utilizing video content for instruction, and the 2 gigabytes of data from the hotspot devices can be stretched thin if students live in households where multiple devices are being used. Chang said they’ve asked teachers to be “prudent” when incorporating videos into their lesson plans.

And while many families are familiar with itslearning, some still require guidance. Early on, Pluhar and a social worker helped a Spanish-speaking family access the platform. The mom of three kids couldn’t use FaceTime. Pluhar and the social worker weren’t able to visit the home. Instead, over the phone, they talked through how to access her childrens’ classes on itslearning and send pictures of their work to their teachers through email.

Another time, Pluhar and a member of the school district’s IT department visited the residence of a homeless family that had recently enrolled in Forsyth County. With masks and gloves on, they connected the family’s old computer to one of the school system’s hotspot devices, showed them how to get the best WiFi signal, gave instructions on itslearning and provided contacts with the school and district.

“The level of support for families in different families is different,” Pluhar said.

Students don’t necessarily have to stay engaged with their course work if they were satisfied with their grades before schools closed. The school system’s plan for continued learning adopted the state’s “Hold Harmless Provision,” which prevents any work assigned and submitted March 16 to May 22 from having a negative effect on a student’s overall semester average.

The plan also provided guidelines for how much students at each grade level should be working each day.

“That helped our families a lot with scheduling,” Pluhar said.

Most of the homeless students Pluhar keeps in touch with are continuing their school work, she said. It provides a sense of normalcy during a turbulent time.

Regardless of how students return to school in the fall, the school district is already planning on how to address academic gaps from the loss of classroom instruction. Using previous research on summer learning loss, the non-profit Northwest Evaluation Association predicted “major declines in student learning” from school closures during the pandemic, particularly in math.

Chang said the school district will conduct assessments in the fall with students “to diagnose some learning gaps or some instructional needs that might need to be met prior to the next grade level’s content,” she said.

Regardless, Pluhar is encouraged by the feedback she’s hearing from students. 

“Most of them are saying, ‘I’m fine,’” she said. “It’s a little harder, but wouldn’t all of our students say that right now?” 

She added, “Our students’ character and integrity and resiliency has shown through and through. And our parents have been a delight to work with.”