The Pandemic Put Student Poverty in Plain Sight

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“He called me a ‘bitch’ and then kicked my door in when I tried to shut it.” I’m sitting at my desk listening to Kris, one of my eighth-grade students, during our lunch. I have room-temperature leftovers and day-old coffee. She hasn’t brought anything because she doesn’t have anything. She depends on the food pantry at school. I let her eat some of mine.

“Mom’s got her new boyfriend, and I get to deal with my brother while they go out.” I nod, taking another bite of chicken finger. I know from previous conversations with Kris that her mom is a heroin addict, three months sober. She seems like a good woman, a loving mother, but her taste in men hasn’t improved, judging by the story Kris is sharing about how her mom’s new boyfriend acts when he gets angry.

Kris is one of so many kids I see in this place, the school where I work as an eighth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher. There is something to be said about the universal effects of suffering, but it won’t be by me, not here. I deliver the same cliche line for lack of being able to think of anything better.

In a few weeks, the bottom is going to fall out. In mid-March, 2020, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine will call for the closing of schools due to COVID. At the time, we will think it’s just for three days ….

“It’s not fair,” Kris says.

“No, it isn’t,” I reply. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

“You want to see a picture of the door?” Kris shows me, then shows me bruises from where she says her mom’s boyfriend grabbed her. I pull a child protective services report out of my desk to fill out during our planning bell.

“I want out so bad, just move away and be done with it,” Kris says.

With the lockdown coming, she is about to lose her only escape.

More often than not, teachers find out details about a student’s home life that break our hearts several times over. We have front-row seats to physical, emotional and sexual abuse cases, neglect, poverty and other tragedies outside of school, all of which are beyond the control of both teachers and our students.

My district is no exception. We are a Title I school, meaning our poverty levels exceed a certain percentage of students set forth by the state of Ohio, and so we face the aforementioned on a daily basis. Our job description may be to teach academics, but we become therapists, advocates, protectors and confidants. We show up every day for those kids because they need the stability and framework in their lives. They’re our kids, even if we each only have them for an hour a day.

When COVID took that stability away, students and teachers were left reeling. The pandemic rocked everyone. No one was safe from the uncertainty and fear it brought. Climbing death tolls ran on a 24-hour loop everywhere you looked. In the teaching field, it was most evident in the sudden “pivot” we had to make, followed by another and another until we were spinning. Our kids were looking for guidance we didn’t have. Our three days turned to two weeks, then another two …. We all saw where it was heading. I mean, could it have gone anywhere else?

I had gotten an email from Ashley at some point over the weekend soon after we started virtual classes. We hadn’t heard from her since the shutdown began. Her story was similar to Kris’: rough home life, struggling parents, no food. Where they differed was in temperament. Ashley was headstrong and angry. This was all bullshit in her mind and needed to be sucked up so we could all get back to our lives. Her mom had a medical condition that cost the family enough that they frequently had to make a choice between food and medicine. Her dad grew and sold pot to offset some of their loss, but I had been sworn to secrecy about that. “Man’s gotta do…” and so on. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same in his situation.

Ashley’s email was simple: “I can’t do your work. Wi-Fi is out, and I’m writing this at the library. Tell the other teachers.”

The family couldn’t pay to keep their phones on either. Normally this wouldn’t have been an issue, as work would be done at school. This went for Kris too, and the 30 or so kids assigned to my teaching team who were facing similar issues with things we would consider basic human needs and privileges.

We figure out poverty based on free and reduced lunch numbers. These are students who get a school meal for less than the normal price due to their families’ low socio-economic status. This is standard for Ohio, and there’s money tied into it for school operations. We say things like “low-SES” to make it sound less jarring, but like most things in education, this lingo needlessly complicates a basic concept: a certain segment of our community lives in poverty; they’re poor. As someone who grew up the same, I can empathize. When you talk about “poverty,” it comes across as this vague concept that we know is there but don’t see clearly. Now, due to the pandemic, it was there in plain sight in all its harsh reality.

Once we got the call that we were going virtual, we didn’t know the fallout that was coming. We had given our students individual Chromebooks, so they had access to Schoology assignments, Google Classroom and various announcements made by the district through email and social media. It should have been an easy transition, but like most ideas, it only looked good on paper. What happened was an en masse crashing of grades, attendance and student engagement.

We did what most teachers who had never been in this situation do: try to adapt ourselves to this new challenge, then blame kids and parents for being lazy and inattentive. We were finding that 80 percent of our kids were either not coming to class or were signing on, then going to do something else, most likely Xbox. We found out shortly after that kids weren’t able to access the internet, or they didn’t have their Chromebook chargers because they were locked in some classroom. Those who had their tech tools were signed on, but some had competing priorities, like feeding the baby while their parents were out looking for work.

We realized quickly that it wasn’t a lack of work ethic—it was a lack of hope. School was no longer a priority.

The district scrambled to find hotspots they could use in the poorest parts of town while the local schools went room to room gathering chargers for pickup. Teams of teachers got together to run them out to students who had no transportation, along with go-bags with food and toiletries from our food pantry. It was the best we could do with the resources available at the time, and since COVID had made us feel helpless, this was something we could help with.

Our team of teachers bought $100 gift cards for Kris’ and Ashley’s families to help with groceries. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last time we would see those students for the school year. We met up with them in a Kroger parking lot to hand the gift cards off. Kris’s mom cried.

So did we.

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