No Place to Go
As schools shut down in-person learning and go remote,
homeless students lose their havens of stability and support.
November 25, 2020 10:11 AM EDT
Last week’s shutdown of New York City’s public schools disrupted life for hundreds of thousands of students and parents. For some, though, it signifies an even more painful gut punch: a loss of family.
In an iconic brick schoolhouse on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, about 450 children usually find refuge from an astonishing array of storms. Nearly half the school’s students live in homeless shelters or other temporary housing; nearly all of them are poor. Many are veterans of the foster care system or survivors of domestic violence.
Those descriptions may sound bleak, but the entire vibe of Public School 188 — also known as the Island School — is anything but. In the pre-COVID “before times,” the school served as a bustling hub of help and affection not just for its pre-K-grade 8 students, but for their entire families. From 6:45 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. six days a week, kids and parents had access to three meals a day, a medical clinic, mental health services, dental care, a washer and dryer, school uniforms, backpacks, school supplies, socks, underwear, deodorant, toothpaste, coats, towels, sheets, comforters — and, perhaps just as importantly, kind words of encouragement and plenty of hugs.
Some of those offerings had to be curtailed or adapted because of the coronavirus pandemic, but for the first eight weeks of this academic year, the school continued to provide stability and support for kids and parents who needed it most. Younger children and special education students attended school in person five days a week, middle schoolers went three days a week, and after-school programs lasted until 5 p.m. so parents could hold down jobs. That all came to a hasty halt when the largest school district in the country said it would return to all-remote learning due to rising COVID-19 cases.
“We have no words for what this is like,” P.S. 188 Principal Suany Ramos told TODAY Parents. “We are truly a family here. Our families need us.
“We want to say, ‘Leave us alone and let us teach our babies.’”
P.S. 188 is just one of many schools in New York serving homeless students; more than 100,000 public school students in the city do not have permanent housing. P.S. 188 can offer so many services because it’s one of more than 260 schools in New York City and 5,000 schools across the nation that operate under the “community school” model. Such schools use Medicaid reimbursements to cover health and dental care. They also partner with nonprofits, businesses, colleges and universities to provide “wrap-around services” for their families.
“That term ‘wrap-around’ refers to arms wrapping around families in an embrace, and that’s what’s missing now because we’ve had to let them go,” said Lou Lahana, a longtime teacher at P.S. 188. “It’s painful for the parents and the children, and it’s painful for us to let them go, knowing what they’re going back to.”
Most of P.S. 188’s students live in public housing or nearby homeless and domestic violence shelters. Others wake up at 5 a.m. to commute from as far away as Staten Island and the Bronx because they have such a close connection to the school’s teachers and staff.
Now that in-person school is closed, some kids will be alone all day because their parents are front-line workers. Others will struggle to make remote classes work in crowded apartments with extended family members. With 10 or 11 people in a one-bedroom apartment, it can be challenging to sleep well or focus on Zoom sessions or homework.
At a time when a persistent digital divide has left up to 16 million students across the U.S. and tens of thousands in New York City without access to the technology required for remote learning, P.S. 188 has hustled to get most of its students internet-enabled devices from the city’s Department of Education. As of last Friday, 28 families at the school still needed devices, Principal Ramos said.
Getting devices into kids’ hands doesn’t solve everything, though: Department of Education tablets have hotspots that rely on cellular service, but cell service can be spotty or non-existent at homeless shelters.
“A lot of the shelters are in digital deserts and dead zones,” Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education, told TODAY Parents. New York City recently announced plans to install Wi-Fi in city-run shelters, but that might not happen until after this school year is over.
“We keep saying that students need not only the right device, but also a high-speed connection to have sustained connection for video,” Gripper said. “If the only way to access free public education is through a device and an internet connection, those things need to be included in your free public education. Otherwise, your social economics determine whether or not you can get a public education.”
Even when everything is going right and students successfully make it online, remote learning still presents a slew of challenges. Younger children accustomed to going to school in person have a hard time sitting still and focusing during extended online classes; many of them move around, wiggle, lie down or wander off in search of snacks.
Last Thursday, the first day of all-remote schooling in New York City, seventh graders from the Island School gathered on Zoom for a lesson about the themes found in an article about Sacagawea, the young Native American woman who strapped her baby to her back and helped Lewis and Clark make their arduous trek to the Pacific Ocean.
“She had a hard life,” one student inferred from the text.
“She had inner conflict,” offered another.
Right around then, one boy used Zoom’s group chat feature to message another boy in the class.
“Wanna play Roblox on Friday the 20th after school?”
“Not now!” teacher Lahana frantically typed.
“Sorry,” the boy wrote.
It was a relatable pandemic moment for so many teachers, who sympathize with how isolated and lonely many of their students are but who still want to teach them something this year.
“Here we have this really vulnerable population of students, but at the same time there’s something so wonderful and spirited about these kids,” Lahana said. “Yes, they’ve experienced a lot of traumas, but you see that the traumas have not taken them over. They’ve risen above them.”
In a normal, non-pandemic school year, Lahana would be running P.S. 188’s “social action makerspace,” a place where students can express themselves creatively about social issues that get them fired up and, in many cases, affect their lives personally. In the makerspace, kids have access to mountains of materials so they can make art projects, clothing, podcasts, documentary films and more about anything from domestic violence to climate change to substance abuse to racism to homelessness to COVID-19.
“My students have a lot going on in their minds and a lot going on outside of school,” Lahana said. “Rather than bury it, they use it as a fuel to create positive messages to make changes in the world.
“I’m not empowering these students. They have plenty of power already. … I just amplify their messages so a wider audience can hear what they have to say.”
One of those students is Pablo Cruz, 13, who hatched a creative plan in Lahana’s class last year to spotlight something that mattered to him: the idea that people wear (metaphorical) masks to hide the effects of bullying and domestic violence. He created a face mask out of papier mâché, then — with video rolling — dramatically smashed the mask with a hammer.
“Leaving … unhealthy relationships is really hard, but sometimes you just have to take that mask and break through it,” Pablo said imploringly into the camera. Then, as he mangled the remains of the mask with his hands, he added a parting thought for victims of abuse: “And promise that you’ll never use the mask again.”
It’s an issue Pablo understands all too well. In August 2019, he and his 12-year-old sister, Lorena, moved into a domestic violence shelter with their mom, Yocasta Rosario. Rosario, 43, said she left her husband when the abuse became unbearable.
Initially, the family landed in a shelter right near P.S. 188, so Pablo and Lorena began going there. They’ve since relocated to Brooklyn, but before last week’s remote learning announcement, they continued commuting to Manhattan because they love the Island School so much.
“This school really lets you express yourself,” Pablo told TODAY Parents, adding that Lahana’s “makerspace” was his favorite class: “I liked it more than gym.”
“Dr. Lahana taught us about the domestic violence cycle,” Pablo continued. “It’s a cycle that keeps happening again and again: there’s a honeymoon part, then a buildup, and then an explosion.
“I would advise anyone in that situation to leave and not come back because you might end up dead.”
Pablo’s sister Lorena also made a project with a domestic violence theme in Lahana’s class: a T-shirt bearing the message, “Men who abuse women don’t deserve to be called men.”
Lahana’s efforts to help students earned him this year’s FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence. That $25,000 award was accompanied by a $100,000 grant for the Island School. New York investment guru Glenn Fuhrman said he and his wife, Amanda Fuhrman, established the FLAG Award because they rarely saw public school teachers getting the recognition they deserve.
“I read three newspapers a day like many New Yorkers, and the only time you read anything about New York City schoolteachers is when the one out 10,000 does something bad — you never hear anything good,” Fuhrman told TODAY. “We wanted to reward some great teachers and maybe do it in a way that changes the conversation and broadens people’s view that, hey, there are a lot of great teachers out there.”
Now that the school shutdown is in place, teachers and staff at P.S. 188 are scrambling to stay as connected as they can with students and parents. Meals and groceries remain available for pickup at the school; mental health sessions and doctors’ appointments remain available over Zoom.
This week, the school is giving away “Thanksgiving in a bag” meals to families. Next, the school will make sure all its families get everything they need for the holidays, including Christmas trees, food and gifts.
“It doesn’t matter what time of day our families need us,” Ramos said. “It’s never ‘no.’ It’s never anything negative. It’s always, ‘Let’s look for the positive and provide a little more for our families.’”
Like hundreds of thousands of other students, Pablo and Lorena are adjusting to doing schoolwork from home five days a week and no longer getting to see their friends. “It’s so boring!” Lorena said. Pablo bemoaned the fact that he’s already watching way too much YouTube — mostly art and drawing-related videos, but still.
Cut off from his makerspace room, Lahana is adapting to his role as the virtual teacher for seventh grade English Language Arts and math. Even though it has to be done remotely, he’s still finding ways to help students work through personal problems and express themselves through poetry, podcasting, comics, drawings and music.
“Our job is to shine a light on the darkness,” he said. “When you shine a light on darkness, it scatters.”
The inaugural FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence for the 2019-20 school year was open for K-12 school teachers in Manhattan-based public schools; the prize will expand to other New York City boroughs for the 2020-21 school year and to other U.S. cities in future years. The deadline for nominating a teacher for the 2020-21 academic year is Dec. 15.
Laura T. Coffey is a senior contributing writer, editor and producer for TODAY and is the author of the best-selling non-fiction book "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts."