When the coronavirus forced Minnesota schools to shift to distance learning in March, the transition from the classroom to not seeing his classmates anymore proved jarring for 6-year-old Cree, who Jon and Helen Tracy took in from foster care two years ago.
Struggling with abandonment issues and post-traumatic stress, “he was majorly triggered when schools moved online,” said Jon Tracy, a Wells Fargo Bank loan specialist. “It was very rough for him.”
The inability to prepare Cree for the transition made the situation more challenging for the then-kindergartner, said the Tracys, who adopted their son in June. Attending school remotely from both his home and the home of his adoptive grandparents didn’t work for him. So Helen Tracy – who teaches at the Twin Cities-area charter school Cree attends – had to get creative after March’s state lockdown. In Minnesota, where school districts and charters rely on a local approach to reopening, she brought Cree with her to the Stillwater campus. There, small numbers of students and teachers attended in person until the school year ended May 29.
Cree closed out the school year by taking breaks in between lessons, including “fun runs” up and down the hallways. At the school’s learning lab, he had access to a weighted blanket, and a whiteboard to scribble on. The tools calmed him down enough to focus on learning, his parents said.
Although the Tracys found an academic system that works for their child after the pandemic shut down schools, they are the exception. Hundreds of thousands of foster youth across the country face greater struggles than many of their peers with schools now largely online. Foster children placed with low-income relatives have limited access to laptops and Wi-Fi; youth in residential facilities can find themselves completely cut off, and children with special needs have suddenly lost supportive resources.
Advocates and foster parents say young people in foster care – across all age brackets – have particularly acute mental health challenges given the uncertainty and fear of the times, with many caregivers determining, for now, that attention to those needs may well outweigh the need to stay on top of school.
“School is a great place for kids to go and be cared for by other people and receive the support that helps them to feel successful in an academic setting,” said Heidi Wiste, director of social work for the foster care and adoption program at the Children’s Home Society and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. The organization has provided parents and caregivers with virtual drop-in meetings and a summer webinar series. “And with that just being totally out of the picture, there’s a lot of responsibility that’s falling on parents. A lot of times it’s coming down to what are the emotional needs of the kids and how best to meet them.”
To be sure, there are upsides. Caregivers with newly placed children in their homes are taking the time to get to know them in new ways during the pandemic. In the process, they are making discoveries about their learning abilities – sometimes finding out that they function far below grade level. This has been challenging for many caregivers because remote learning makes it harder to get support from the school faculty members who, under normal circumstances, would have provided closer guidance.
Cree is above grade level, according to his parents, but Helen Tracy has still spoken to the school’s special education director about making some “massive changes” to better accommodate him when school resumes at the end of August.
Despite the health risks in a state where almost 58,000 people have contracted the coronavirus, in her son’s case, Tracy believes he can go to class safely. “I am going to push really hard for him to be going into school every day to do his learning with a paraprofessional,” she said.
Special education is one of the top concerns of child welfare advocates during the pandemic, according to Kristin Kelly, senior attorney and assistant director of education projects for the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law in Washington, D.C.
“Students in foster care are far more likely to be identified and need special ed services, and during distance learning, school districts across the country have struggled with how to deliver those services to support students, and special ed services are obviously either not happening or really being scaled back and that’s causing huge problems,” Kelly said. Among the challenges are those still to come, she added: Being able to track the extent to which services are not being provided now, in order to get foster children caught up in the future.
Technology has emerged as another hurdle. Caregivers report they don’t have access to technology, or don’t understand it well enough to help support their children as they try to learn through online portals. In some cases, foster parents and relatives caring for multiple children may not have enough devices to go around, or they simply don’t have the time to schedule and attend all the distance learning sessions and online meetings with teachers that are required of them these days.
Ensuring that foster youth receive a quality education has been a problem long before COVID-19 appeared, problems that are now exacerbated and not always receiving the attention they deserve.
The academic achievement gap between foster youth and their peers has been the subject of studies for years. For example, in the 2018-19 academic year, according to the California Department of Education, just 56% of foster youth graduated from high school, compared with 85% of their peers.
Now, during the pandemic, the learning gap appears to be growing even larger. The nation’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, released data in July about the weekly peak participation of students in distance learning and found the figure to be just 57% for foster youth compared to 89% with Asian American middle school students and 91% for Asian American high school students – the student cohort most likely to engage in remote learning.
Kelly said the problem often comes down to foster youths’ needs getting drowned out by others. “The needs of students in child welfare tend to not be a priority for the education system because it’s a comparatively small group of students compared to all the students that they’re trying to serve,” she said.
At the Los Angeles County Office of Education regional education agency – serving more than 2 million students in 80 school districts – La Shona Jenkins, project director of the Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program, said the agency will provide training to caregivers to raise distance learning participation rates. Each school district in the county has until Sept. 30 to submit a “learning continuity plan” that addresses attendance and engagement.
School instability is another issue that has traditionally created challenges for foster youth, but now may lead to even greater difficulty. Even though they have the right to remain in their “school of origin,” as many as 65% of foster youth change schools during their time in the system, according to the American Bar Association’s foster care education legal center.
Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, said that changing schools under the pandemic’s online learning model has made it even more difficult for foster youth to fit in and find friends and support.
“A child in foster care may be coming to a new foster home, where they don't know anyone, and they don't have any connections in school, and their first exposure to school would be an online platform without the support that they need – a connection with a guidance counselor or even to facilitate their coming into a new school,” she said. “It’s important to ensure that all children in foster care are able to continue in their prior school rather than immediately enroll in a new school and face those barriers.”
But McInerney is particularly concerned about children in residential placements, who often have learning disabilities and attend schools that may be of inferior quality to the public schools they would otherwise be enrolled in. McInerney said many states don’t oversee the quality of the education children placed in group homes receive, and given the current social distancing restrictions, oversight is even more limited.
“They live in isolation, and that isolation extracts a significant emotional toll,” she said. “In many cases, no one is visiting them; they are not going to school at all. It's obviously horribly detrimental to them.”
Jessica Maxwell, a deputy director at FosterEd: California, part of the National Youth Law Center, echoed those concerns. Congregate care settings, she said, haven’t quickly adapted to school in the age of the coronavirus: Often there is only one laptop for all residents in a group home, or their policies are dated, such as limiting hours online during the school day.
If school districts and group homes don’t make a concerted effort, the “most educationally at-risk” could fall further behind in their education and life prospects.
“They will need more support. They will need additional resources. They will need more connections to be engaged in school,” McInerney said. “Without that support, unfortunately, many of them are likely to drop out.”