F. Castro/ SFVS

Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez hands out face masks, hygiene products to Citlali Colon and her three children at the back-to-school fair held Monday August 17 at Vagabond Inn, a Sylmar motel dedicated for homeless families.

Jazzmin Turman has spent the past six months with her husband and three kids living at the Vagabond Inn in Sylmar, a motel housing hundreds of homeless families in one-room rentals.

Turman’s family ended up without a roof over their heads after her husband lost his job at Delta Airlines. Soon, they couldn’t pay their rent and were left in the streets.

“It’s very hard. The space is very small,” admits Turman, who is also pregnant.

Nonetheless, a new school year has begun for Turman’s kids and the other 600,000-plus students of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). They started the fall semester this week, and are learning strictly online as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage uncontrollably across the country.

The fact students are having to learn online as opposed to being inside classrooms — and still have no definite date when they can return to those classrooms — shows how different the 2020-21 school year could be.

For the majority of students, online learning means having access to a computer, reliable Internet service and picking a place in their home to access online meetings and do their homework. Often, these virtual classes are via Zoom, where teachers and students can interact with each other. For this school year, teachers are also taking attendance in an effort to improve student participation after thousands were absent from online classes last semester.

But thousands of children in K-12 are not as lucky. Nearly 18,000 of them are homeless—over 2,100 of them in the Northeast Valley—a situation that brings added challenges for virtual classes.

The district is trying to improve from the distance-learning model it implemented on the fly in March, when schools were forced to close in order to prevent the spread of the virus on campuses. But the challenges remain.

Turman’s oldest daughter, Promise, is able to start the school year with a laptop and hotspot provided by the LAUSD. But her younger siblings don’t have their own computers yet, so they all have to share it.

How will they manage?

“I’m going to do my best to try to help them where I can,” Turman said.

Back-To-School Resource Fair

To help them and others get ready for the upcoming school year, Los Angeles Councilmember Monica Rodriguez and LA Family Housing held a back-to-school resource fair at the motel on Monday, Aug. 17.

Turman and the rest of the homeless families staying there braved the searing summer temperatures to receive breakfast and sorely needed hygiene kits, school supplies and backpacks. The backpacks and school supplies may not be a major need right now that all schoolwork is being done online; but they may come in handy when students return to school—something the LAUSD is still hoping can happen before the end of the school year.

If not, at least they can use the pens, pencils and paper to entertain themselves.

“This helps a lot,” Turman said.

Another parent, Jocelyn Mendoza, was also grateful for the provisions. She, too, has been at the motel for six months since her husband lost his job, and knows firsthand the challenges of distance learning.

“You always need a more private place for him to take his classes. You have to find the time so that he’s calm and can concentrate,” said the mother, speaking of her son, Andres Gonzalez.

Mendoza said the virtual classes have been a learning experience  for her as well as her son.

“We have to keep up-to-date because as parents of another decade we don’t really know (how to do this),” she noted. “Fortunately, my son’s school has guided us step by step, so we can help him take his classes.”

LA Family Housing CEO Stephanie Klasky-Gamer says they provide meals and a roof for families at a difficult stage in their lives, but notes the pandemic-related economic downturn makes it even harder for them to get back on their feet.

“The loss of unemployment has hurt a lot of families. Many people are now in low-wage jobs and they can’t afford a typical rent in Los Angeles,” she said.

The Digital Divide

Councilmember Rodriguez echoed those difficulties.

“The circumstances have just compounded the problems we’ve had of poverty and a digital divide,” she said. “We have families that are struggling to make ends meet, day-to-day. These are trying situations, and with an online learning environment we need to help these kids operate and function in an environment where they don’t have the basics.”

The LAUSD lost the participation of more than 40,000 students throughout the district last semester, meaning those were kids not participating in the online classes.

Rodriguez hopes district officials can improve from the mistakes made amid an abrupt disruption in the learning model, as teachers and students tried to navigate a sudden virtual learning world.

While the council member vehemently opposes reopening schools until health protocols allow it, Rodriguez also admits “online learning is not consistent in terms of access, format, schedule. Every classroom, every kid is different.”

“I’m truly concerned that there are insufficient resources. Many families don’t have the means. How do you pick between going to work and staying home to take care of kids? It’s a struggle. I worry about how many kids we’re going to lose in quality academic years. This has put a lot of kids in further jeopardy and risk status,” Rodriguez said.

Even the LAUSD Board is not certain the district has overcome those problems.

During its meeting last week, board member George McKenna said he has “no illusions the students will be as well-served … with distance-learning as they would be if they could actually be in a classroom with a teacher.”

He added, “All we can do is try to keep our children safe and as well-educated as we can.”

Distance-Learning Plans

Plans for the fall semester include an average school day from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.; targeted small group instruction; opportunities for small group and independent student work; social emotional support for students; instructional training; flexibility for teachers to work on campus or from home; office hours for students and families to connect with teachers; and more.

Devices, textbooks and Internet access are being provided to families in need, and a Family Helpdesk hotline and Family and Student Handbook are designed to help navigate online learning. A Mental Health hotline is also accepting calls.

A Step Up Tutoring program will utilize volunteers from across the country — screened individuals who are college educated — to provide K-8 students with assistance outside of the regular school day.

Rodriguez remains optimistic that the LAUSD is working out a more equitable and accessible academic year, but knows there are large disparities in infrastructure between the neighborhoods she represents and other affluent areas of the city.

“Kids are experiencing very different academic situations in terms of access to printers, learning tools. It’s concerning,” she said.

“We’ve got a great deal of inequality in terms of level of access.”

Citlali Colon, who has been living at the Vagabond Inn with her three children for the past three months, know this.

“It’s going to be challenging for them to stay focused in school,” she says, adding that she shares in those difficulties.

“A lot of patience — That’s what parents have to have,” she said.

If your child is in need of a laptop computer or wifi hotspot, you can contact (213) 443-1300, or visit http://device.lausd.net.

City News Service contributed to this report.