Homeless students need more than Chromebooks

Chicago is home to more more than 16,000 students without stable housing. Remote learning puts them at risk of falling further behind academically.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

Remote learning is not easy on anyone, but it poses particular hurdles for the 16,000 homeless Chicago Public Schools students and their families.

When remote learning began in March, our main priority at Primo Center was securing devices and hotspots for the 130 school-aged children living in our shelters and permanent supportive housing sites. All of these students now have the technology they need to participate in remote learning, and we’ve equipped our buildings with a strong internet connection. That alone is not enough. 

Christine Achre (Courtesy photo)

Homeless students also need a safe place to be. They need meals, snacks, and a supportive system that encourages learning. They need a routine. But when homeless families are moving from place to place, when children don’t know if and where they are going to be able to sleep, eat, and bathe, routines are difficult to set and maintain. In normal times, school provides needed structure, consistency, and social interaction for all students, regardless of their housing situation. 

Our approach has always been to meet families where they’re at. Which is why we’re developing customized plans for each of our families during remote learning. It often means getting creative. For example, we created an “office” in one of our conference rooms for a child who attends a charter school and whose classes started a week earlier than most of his peers. He had been reluctant to start school before the others, until the prospect of going to “work” in his own space changed that. And because it’s important that parents are active in their children’s learning experiences, we made sure his family knew where to find him so they could sit with him and help with schoolwork. 

For families who aren’t in a shelter like Primo Center, who are instead doubled up with other family members or living out of their cars, remote learning can prove an even greater hurdle. Family homelessness is called “invisible homelessness” because families are less likely to live out on the streets. School is a lifeline for so many of them. In the past, many families turned to public spaces, like local coffee shops and restaurants, for a clean space and stable Wi-Fi connection. But as COVID-19 has taken away many of these options, students in transitional living situations have lost out. Though some public spaces have reopened with safety restrictions, the city needs to continue opening libraries and community centers to provide for the needs of these students. 

We should all be concerned about the widening of the educational gap between housed and unhoused students due to the pandemic and the inaccessibility of remote learning. Remote learning and inadequate academic support put homeless students at risk of falling further behind academically. When you don’t have a home to work and learn from, opportunities are already limited; and if homeless students do not have a place to go during the day, they may be at an increased risk of abuse, trauma or malnutrition. All of which, of course, can make it harder to focus on schoolwork.

We are lucky to have the devices our students need, snacks to keep them full and focused, and dedicated spaces for our children to learn, but it may not be enough. When the needs of homeless students go unmet, the myriad traumas many have encountered at young ages make it that much harder to overcome the challenges before them. 

As we serve more families, the need for our mental health services increases as the emotional stressors of homelessness, a pandemic, and remote learning take their toll. To ensure all homeless students can thrive, it is essential that social service agencies and service providers partner with each family and have conversations to ask — not assume — what they need to help their children learn.  

Christine Achre is the CEO of Primo Center and has provided services to homeless families since 1995. Her work has focused on program development, research, and clinical practice geared towards the implementation of best practices for homeless families.