As the new school year ramps up, some students in school districts across the country are still working through getting access and adapting to remote learning. For foster youth, it can be even more complicated to get the support they need.
We talked to Debbie Raucher, the director of education at John Burton Advocates for Youth, about the issues foster youth have been dealing with since schools shut down in March and tips for teachers to support them, even remotely.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Amber Ly: Back in March when schools closed, how did that abrupt transition to remote learning impact young people in foster care?
Debbie Raucher: A lot of foster youth don’t have access to the technology necessary to participate in distance learning. Maybe there’s three foster children living in a home and there’s one computer. The home has access, but you really need every child to have a computer during this time. It’s not something that you can really share.
In those early days, a big part of our work was trying to identify resources to get students laptops and Wi-Fi access. Because if they didn’t have that, then the opportunities to continue learning in any sort of meaningful way didn’t exist.
AL: Many school districts have returned to distance learning in the fall. What other aspects of this model pose as challenges for foster youth as the school year continues?
DR: There is a significant percentage of foster youth who have an IEP — it stands for Individualized Education Plan. And students [who have an IEP] have been determined to have some sort of learning disability that requires additional support.
There’s various things that are made available through an IEP. There’s tutoring, there’s aides that provide assistance [at school]. And suddenly, those services kind of disappeared. And the expectation is that parents essentially are going to be playing that role in the home.
AL: Distance learning has been pretty tough for a lot of parents to balance. What added difficulties are there for foster families?
DR: With foster kids, they’re in all kinds of different settings. And so in some cases, perhaps the caregiver has the capacity. But others not. I think similarly to any kid, if a parent is working, if they’re in an essential job or even if they’re working from home — trying to manage working full time while simultaneously trying to facilitate your child’s education, I mean, that’s hard for any parent.
The added layer is that foster kids are lagging behind their peers in a number of areas. And so the last thing foster youth need is learning loss. But now you have this situation, where some kids coming from families with more resources have access to more support around distance learning. And the disparities we’ve spent so many years trying to shrink, they’re becoming even bigger now.
AL: What different challenges do foster youth in college face?
DR: One thing is a lot of insecurity around basic needs. You know, like losing jobs, becoming homeless, not having access to money for food. These are all challenges for foster youth even in good times.
I know one young woman who was at community college and was sharing an apartment with two other students. And when school closed, those two students decided to move back with their parents. And so she ended up becoming homeless. Because she didn’t have parents to go back to. She couldn’t easily find new roommates or take over the whole rent.
AL: I’ve read there’s a possibility that an influx of kids may enter the foster system, if more school districts reopen. Why is that?
DR: Teachers are mandated reporters. So if they observe what appears to be abuse or neglect going on in the home, they have a legal obligation to file a report with Child Protective Services. And then Child Protective Services goes out and investigates and determines what sort of follow up is necessary.
And so a lot of that identification happens at schools. [Teachers] are the first ones to notice the bruises on somebody’s arm. Or a student falling asleep in class. Or they tell you that they haven’t eaten breakfast in three weeks.
There’s evidence that reports of abuse and neglect have gone way down. And my wish is that was because abuse and neglect wasn’t happening as much. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s not being recognized because of the distance learning environment.
AL: What should teachers or professors look out for to help foster youth in this distance learning environment?
DR: Teachers and professors should make themselves approachable and accessible. They can put in their syllabus resources that are available, so it’s in writing. And they should say to the whole class, “If any of you are struggling right now, there are resources out there. Please come talk to me and I will help connect you.” And if they’re gonna make that offer, they should have those names and phone numbers at their fingertips to be able to provide it.
There are still ways that they can look for signs. A significant change in behavior. A student suddenly isn’t showing up anymore or not doing their classwork. Reach out, but do it in a non-punitive way. You don’t have to say like, “Oh, I saw you didn’t turn in your assignments. What’s wrong?” You can say, “Hey, I’m really concerned. I just want to be sure everything’s ok. I want to offer you help if you need it.”
A student should feel like, “They’re not going to judge me if I come to them.” If they get that vibe from a teacher, then they’re going to feel more comfortable to open up.