Grace, a 17-year-old from Duluth, Minnesota, is preparing for her final year at Denfeld High School. The past year has brought nothing but turmoil for the teen and this school year promises more uncertainty.
During the initial COVID-19 outbreak this spring, Grace, who lives in foster care, said she sought a new placement, but the state is so charged for foster homes that she stayed in a shelter for several weeks. She said she has support now, in her current foster home, but it’s about 90 minutes outside of Duluth in Virginia, Minn.
Denfeld High School planned to open its doors to students in September, but Duluth Public Schools pivoted Aug. 24 to plan for distance learning for the first quarter. If students return to class in-person later in the year, Grace decided she won’t be among them — she said she already elected to do distance learning.
“It’s just not worth it to go back to school,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to even try to get kids back to school.”
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into the works for all Minnesota children, upending critical socialization time for younger kids and college preparation for adolescents. But for youth in foster care, the lingering effects of the virus have been even more destabilizing.
Hoang Murphy, founder and executive director of Foster Advocates, a St. Paul-based organization, said he wants the state and counties to offer foster youth and families more direct assistance.
“This is a population that does not get priority” in more stable times, Murphy said. While Minnesota’s population is primarily white, the state’s foster care system has some of the highest disproportionality rates in the country for Black and Native American populations.
Earlier this summer, Foster Advocates conducted a COVID-19 survey with youth currently in the foster care system. According to preliminary data from 156 respondents, Murphy said, more than 80% have experienced a negative change in their lives due to the pandemic and 20 percent have experienced a change in their living situation. Black and LGBTQ youth reported more disruptions and needs overall, Murphy said.
“They’re very worried about just basic needs being met,” Murphy said. “All the disparities that exist in Minnesota are deepened in foster care and [by] COVID-19.”
Murphy said that the state should offer more direct assistance to foster youth during the pandemic, as well as to their caregivers, many of whom are relatives. In Ramsey County, for example, 80% of youth in care are living with kin, said Brian Theine, who manages social services in Ramsey County.
Jade, an 18-year-old from Mankato, Minnesota, said the direct assistance Watonwan County provided her made a big difference this summer. In July, county services offered Jade transportation and help with a deposit for an apartment, a move that she said positively impacted her mental health.
“I feel like I am definitely getting an adequate amount of help,” Jade said. “Now that I have close friends and a support system nearby, I’m definitely doing way better.”
Jade was supposed to graduate last spring, she said, but she didn’t have access to wifi for distance learning until May. She said she is stressed but optimistic about returning to distance learning in September.
“I was having issues with attendance,” Jade added. “Then COVID hit.”
Murphy also wants the state to define a truancy policy specifically around distance learning, to avoid ensnaring youth and families over problems with access to the necessary technology. For example, if a kid needs to watch a class-related lecture video at 9 a.m. but they don’t have access to the family computer until 5 p.m., will teachers mark them absent? And would those kind of absences negatively impact youth or caregivers?
News reports in Massachusetts and New York City have documented parents being reported and then investigated for educational neglect, a classification of maltreatment that varies in definition and enforcement around the country.
Theine said that last spring most school districts did not have firm expectations around attendance during remote learning. Where multiple absences might in normal times prompt a call from school to CPS regarding educational neglect, he said, “in the spring, they sort of halted ed-neglect or truancy.”
“It’s my sense that the schools have been working on this issue for the upcoming school year,” Theine said. “How hard individual schools police it is where there are disparities.”
The state needs to make expectations for teachers and school staff clear, since they are also mandated reporters, Murphy said. “The worst thing that can happen to a kid is they enter into [child protection services] when they don’t need to. I would love some more clarity by responsible agencies.”
The Foster Advocates survey also found that an “overwhelming” number of Minnesota foster youth experience greater loneliness and mental health challenges during COVID-19, he said. Murphy said he’s concerned about the mental well-being of kids who will not return to school in-person.
“School is a place where fosters get to just be kids,” Murphy said. “Fosters do not get that option anymore to be social.”
Note: This article was updated with additional data from the survey done by Foster Advocates.