School children have returned to the classroom, masked and unvaxxed. It’s a controversial situation; kiddos have missed out on critical classroom time, parents can return to a schedule with some sense of normalcy — and educators are worried about the safety of a classroom during the deepest days of the delta variant of COVID-19.
But somehow, in all of the Facebook threads and Nextdoor chats, few seem very concerned about the larger structure that school affords to our region’s thousands of homeless children.
Data released several years ago from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction revealed a startling truth that many teachers already knew: In Washington State, statistics show that there is one homeless child in every classroom. Between the 2007-2008 and 2017-2018 school years, the number of homeless students in Washington doubled to more than 40,000 kids.
These are kids who sleep in cars, in shelters, at hotels and on the pull-out sofas of friends and relatives. In spite of huge obstacles — like an address that changes from night to night or not having a place to brush their teeth — these students make it to class every day, attempting to learn without knowing where they’ll sleep that night or if they’ll have the light needed to finish their homework.
For homeless students and their families, COVID-19 stripped away the scaffolding of a normal life. School provides running water, indoor toilets and the internet. It’s a place where kind administrators might locate a spare sweater or winter coat, or even help connect a family with services.
The pandemic also laid bare some of the greatest disparities in education. Distance learning might have been fun for some kids who got to do their lessons in their pajamas, but for students who don’t have regular access to the internet, education became a low priority. The libraries were closed, as well, meaning getting connected to a video chat was literally impossible. And the tens of thousands of children who regularly rely on schools to provide one or even two meals per day had to make due with pop-up sack lunches in parks — less nutritious, less filling and much less convenient.
There are genuine safety concerns about returning to school before the COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for children; parents, educators and administrators need to work together to find the safest path. But there are also concerns about keeping students out of school for another year, especially when so few of the equity gaps created by COVID have been addressed.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is the co-founder of Seattlish; her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Salon, Fast Company and VICE.
Read more of the Oct. 6-12, 2021 issue.