‘The strongest lifeline’: Districts struggle to find Allegheny County’s homeless students as COVID increased distance and needs

by TyLisa Johnson

These days, Christina Russell and her daughter, Mareica Anderson, are busy unpacking their new home. It’s a brighter time for the duo, who faced housing insecurity living in Pittsburgh during the fall months of 2020 amid the COVID pandemic.

“We had to go from a house to a shelter to a shelter to another shelter, you know what I mean, until we found our place where she was comfortable,” said Russell, 41.

When school began in the fall, Russell did everything she could to keep her daughter engaged and feeling a sense of normalcy despite changing living environments.

“Well, I didn’t really let it affect her,” Russell said. “I kind of basically took all of it in myself. I kept her on the same schedule. I didn’t change anything. The only thing that changed was living conditions.” 

Christina Russell sits with her daughter Mareica Anderson

Christina Russell and her daughter, Mareica Anderson faced housing insecurity living in Pittsburgh during the fall months of 2020 amid the COVID pandemic. When school began in the fall, Russell did everything she could to keep her daughter engaged and feeling a sense of normalcy despite changing living environments.

Eight-year-old Anderson is a second grader at Agora Cyber Charter Schools, so although she attended virtual school for a few years before the pandemic and didn’t need to adapt to e-learning, her experience trying to learn amid housing instability is similar to thousands of kids across Allegheny County. 

If basic needs aren’t met — housing, food, clothing — class can be the last thing on a student’s mind. And in the era of remote or hybrid instruction and a pandemic creating unprecedented economic hardship for many, students facing homelessness are especially vulnerable. Despite districts working to provide technology to all students, they often lack a stable place to learn, making it difficult to stay connected to school

School districts in Allegheny County and beyond have long employed liaisons to identify students experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. Their efforts have only been made more complex under the conditions of social distancing, quarantine and virtual learning.  

District liaisons have sought diverse techniques to identify students, such as utilizing online learning platforms and social media to connect with families. Still, without traditional strategies, such as noting transportation needs or in-person signs of housing insecurity, district liaisons struggled to identify students and assist them in the first year of COVID learning. It was especially difficult for those whose districts remained in virtual learning environments.

(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

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‘The strongest lifeline’: Districts struggle to find Allegheny County’s homeless students as COVID increased distance and needs

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