AUGUSTA — Kids at the Family Violence Project supportive housing in Augusta sit around a folding table with their school-issued laptops, trying to find a quiet space to connect to the internet in order to start their classes.

The tables were purchased by the shelter to give the 15 or so children living there a place to do their remote learning — otherwise, they would have to do so on a makeshift desk in one of the 10 rooms the shelter has in place for families.

This is a twice-a-week routine for Amber Frost’s two children. Some days, she even takes classes at the table next to them as a student at Kennebec Valley Community College.

“It’s hard on us with the school structure,” she said. “It’s hard as a parent to teach something that I don’t know how to teach them.”

Her two children, aged 5 and 6, are enrolled in Augusta Public Schools and identify among the 32 students in the school system whose residence isn’t fixed at night.

Frost works alongside Teresa Violette, the Augusta Title I coordinator, to recognize her family’s needs during the time of transition to remote learning.

Augusta schools operate on a hybrid model, where students are split into cohorts and attend school in person twice a week, and work remotely from home the other three days.

According to 2018 data, the most recent from the state of Maine, 19% of children in Kennebec County under the age of 18 fall below the poverty threshold, which is 3% above the state average. The August unemployment rate for Kennebec County was 5.7%, due in large part to the coronavirus, so it is possible the rate child poverty has worsened based on the trend with unemployment. At this point, however, there is no updated data to confirm it.

Violette said that through the McKinney-Vento Assistance Act, the Augusta schools “ensure homeless students are identified and are provided access to the same free and appropriate education as housed students in the department,” which can sometimes look like making sure a student is in the original school district that they were in prior to their move.

“We want to keep their schooling consistent,” she said. “So if we can keep them in their school of origin, where they were attending prior to homelessness, through the act we can supply transportation.”

The cost of the transportation, which can be a contracted car and driver, is split between the two school districts. But because of the coronavirus, it has been difficult to get some of the students to their original districts.

The 15 kids that live at the Family Violence Project’s supported housing attend school on different days because of the remote learning cohorts.

“A lot of the drivers are retired folks, so they don’t want to be exposed to COVID, and there are (only) so many people that we can fit in a car to keep them social distanced if they are from other families,” she said.

At the Family Violence Projects shelter, the supervisors help ensure children are transportated to school because the department’s buses do not stop there. Frost said her children receive transportation.

The Family Violence Project has supportive housing in both Kennebec and Somerset counties. The Augusta location has room for 10 families, according to Pam Morin, the executive director.

The supervisors at the supportive housing also work as advocates in the school system for the families staying there.

“I feel like the thing that we have struggled with the most is that it’s really hard to live in a shelter, especially with children,” Morin said. “You’re expected to ensure that work happens, and that the parents are also involved in the child’s learning. It’s a struggle trying to make sure children have the space to do that.”

Morin said the families’ rooms have tables to help with remote learning. But, she added, sometimes it can be difficult for students, and stressful, especially with the other children around.

“Of course their kids are stressed,” Morin said. “It can be traumatizing and often times they are coming from a trauma situation when they come to the shelter … children are showing stress, and not always wanting to do the work. The other thing is that the schedules are so different, because students may be going to different schools or different grades, hybrid — some are going to school, some aren’t… it just adds to the chaos.”

One issue Frost’s children face is the shelter’s broadband. Morin echoed that internet access was problematic, especially with their Somerset County shelter location.

Schools were able to provide WiFi hot spots to help — something that Violette at the Augusta Public Schools said they are doing, as well.

“I think under the circumstances, they are doing well,” Frost said of her kids. “My 6-year-old was in school regularly, and doing remote learning was hard on my end. She would ask questions (about school), and I would say, ‘I’m not sure how to do that.'”

As for meals, the Augusta schools give five days worth of meals out on the student’s last in-person school day before they switch to remote for the rest of the week.

The Augusta Food Bank has collaborated with the school system to give out weekend meals, said Violette.

“Every Thursday, families know that they can go there from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., no questions asked, and however many bags depending on how many kids,” Violette said.

For Frost, having her children attend school in person a couple days a week allows her children to pick up the food and supplies needed. She said that if the school switched to an all week remote school plan, it would “definitely be harder” to get the supplies needed because the students wouldn’t be bringing them home from school.

Both the shelter and school department have been unable to accept donations of clothes and school supplies because of the coronavirus and restrictions regarding sanitary practices.

The shelter has been able to supply the children with backpacks and materials needed through a local construction company that made the donations beforehand. They received L.L.Bean backpacks and Frost’s family has also received winter jackets to keep them warm in the upcoming months.

We try to get them what they need,” Violette said. “You don’t want them worrying about these basic needs when you want them focusing on school work. The whole goal is to get them to graduation and to be college and career ready.”

 

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