Parents and caregivers who are homeless face a difficult decision: Work to try to escape homelessness, or quit their jobs to help their kids with online learning.



The pandemic has been hard on kids and their parents trying to help educate their kids at home, and few families have suffered more than those who are experiencing homelessness. NPR's Cory Turner has their story.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The trailer Vanessa Shefer shared with her four kids in rural New Hampshire burned down in May. The Red Cross gave them money for clothes and food, but shelters were closed because of the pandemic, and hotels were full.

VANESSA SHEFER: Instead of getting a room with the $400 they provided me, I got camping gear.

TURNER: They camped most of the summer and recently moved in with extended family in Vermont. The hardest part, Shefer says, has been the question her kids ask a lot.

SHEFER: They're like, when are we going to have a home? And just being able to be strong and, you know, not let them see me crumble.

TURNER: How does she do that?

SHEFER: I don't know. It's just mom powers, I guess.

TURNER: In the spring, Shefer says, remote learning pushed her mom powers to the limit, even before they lost their trailer. She had to be at work at the same time her kids needed her home, helping with online classes. Several homeless caregivers told me they've all faced this impossible choice over the past several months - either go to work to try to escape homelessness or quit work to make sure their kids keep up with school.

APRIL: It was just horrible.

TURNER: April in Chatham, N.J., shared her story as part of an online briefing for lawmakers. She was only identified by her first name. April was placed in a hotel room earlier this year after she and her four children lost their home. The school district gave them laptops, but the hotel Wi-Fi was shaky.

APRIL: I was out trying to, like, find a job, even still in the midst of the pandemic on the train. They were complaining, we can't log on. The Internet's not working.

TURNER: The hotel was far from the kid's school, too, so they felt cut off from the world they had known.

APRIL: My kids had nowhere to go, nowhere to be, no outlet. I found a job. They were angry at me because I'm leaving and they can't.

TURNER: School leaders and advocates say stories like these complicate the debate over when is it safe to reopen school buildings. Because closing schools has put many vulnerable kids at even greater risk, not just of falling behind academically but also of going hungry and experiencing trauma.

BARBARA DUFFIELD: There is nothing equitable about distance learning for children and youth who are homeless.

TURNER: Barbara Duffield runs a nonprofit called Schoolhouse Connection. And right now, with many schools still closed, she knows homeless students are hurting.

DUFFIELD: I do think we have to be mindful that the - (crying) sorry, I'm getting emotional. I will get myself together, just a second. The cost of keeping everyone safe is costing some children much more.

TURNER: Krestin Bahr runs a small district in Eatonville, Wash. And she remembers last spring, finding two students huddled in the cold beside her elementary school doors. They'd been sleeping in a car and needed to use the school's Wi-Fi.

KRESTIN BAHR: It just tore my heart. I thought, you know what? That just cannot happen in America (crying).

TURNER: Bahr says this was a turning point for her.

BAHR: I said, we are never closing our doors again. We cannot afford it for children. It's our moral obligation. It's the right thing to do.

TURNER: So this fall, as Bahr slowly reopened schools, she quickly welcomed back her most vulnerable kids, so they could stream their lessons and eat their school meals in the safety of the cafeteria. More and more school leaders are doing the same. In fact, in Vermont, Vanessa Shefer's kids have just started school, in person, part time, in their new district. And soon, she hopes, she can focus on getting her dream job as an EMT and use those mom powers to help others. Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.