At the Mustard Seed School in Sacramento, many of the students live in shelters, cars, motels or tents. Before the pandemic, they showed up at the classroom for daily instruction, as well as showers, meals and other services available at the Loaves and Fishes homeless resource center north of downtown.
When school campuses closed due to COVID-19 and districts began distributing laptops to students for distance learning, Mustard Seed director Casey Knittel realized that wasn’t a workable option.
“There is no way they could plug in Chromebooks into a car,” she said. “There's no electricity. They're not going to Zoom from the side of the road. So there's no safety for children experiencing homelessness to to learn online.”
New state guidelines announced Tuesday allow school districts and other educational agencies to invite K-12 students who struggle with remote learning back to classrooms in “cohorts” of no more than 14 children and two adults.
The option is designed to help homeless children, foster youth, children at risk of abuse or neglect, students with special needs, English language learners and “students at higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning,” according to the guidelines.
Children in the same cohort will be able to learn and play together, so long as they stay completely separate from any other cohort. The guidelines recommend physical distancing and masks even within cohorts.
Schools can keep cohorts in separate outdoor spaces, in different rooms or in spaces created by partitions. Supervising adults cannot interact with other cohorts.
“Group stability is important to minimize exposure and for effective contact tracing,” the guidelines read.
As school districts considered this option over the summer, some teachers’ unions expressed concern about the safety of being in the classroom, even with small numbers of children. Some special education teachers are particularly worried about the new guidelines, because they say these students may not be able to follow safety protocols.
Advocates and parents of children with disabilities raised the alarm early in the pandemic about the challenge of educating these students at home. Many require therapy and other services that can be difficult to provide remotely, and parents are struggling to play multiple roles.
But the group that’s gotten less attention during the pandemic has been children who are at risk of danger in their home lives, said Ted Lempert, president of Oakland-based advocacy group Children Now.
“The focus has been, ‘Is it safe for kids to go back?’” he said. “But a kid that’s homeless – and unfortunately we’re not talking about a handful of kids, we’re talking about thousands – right now, their situation’s not safe.”
He says children who live in violent environments and consider adults at school a lifeline, but California is short on school nurses, counselors and professionals who could potentially call and check on students during the pandemic. The 2020 Children Now report card found only 57% of ninth graders statewide had a caring adult to talk to at school.
“At normal times [the kid] is at school, there are adults to check in and see something’s wrong,” Lempert said. “That’s gone right now. So you can imagine a really frightening situation.”
In Sacramento County, officials saw a sharp decline in reports of child abuse during the pandemic, which advocates attributed to kids not being in schools and day cares.
Under the new state guidelines, high-need students will be allowed to receive specialized one-on-one services, such as counseling or intensive tutoring, as long as the professional providing that service isn’t working in multiple cohorts.
Casey Knittel hasn’t figured out all of the details for reopening the Mustard Seed School yet, but she’s excited to get at least some of her students back. The school usually serves 15 to 30 children a day, and the average length of stay is two to four weeks, during which staff try to help students get reconnected to a standard school.
“We’re really happy to hear the new advice about allowing more vulnerable children on campus,” she said. “It allows us to provide in-person instruction without trying to figure out how to do this online.”
But she’s a little worried — she says the usual amount of school supply donations haven’t been coming in this year.
“People aren’t sure what’s going on with schools, they’re not back-to-school shopping themselves,” she said. “So we could really use help with new school supplies, backpacks and new school clothes for the kids.”
In-person class at Mustard Seed is expected to resume September 8.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.