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As LAUSD teacher strike stretches on, students experiencing homelessness are hit hard

Laura Fay | January 18, 2019

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(Photo: L.A. Family Housing)

The Los Angeles teacher strike has now lasted a full week, and the work stoppage is compounding stress and uncertainty for students and families who rely on schools for meals, childcare and stability, especially for those experiencing homelessness.

More than 17,000 students in L.A. Unified are classified as homeless, and the strike comes amid a federal shutdown that is threatening to cause additional crises for their families.

The district is encouraging all students to continue to attend school, and campuses will continue to provide a welcoming environment and three meals a day, said Denise Miranda, the district’s director of student health and human services.

“We’re going to continue business as usual and ensure that the students’ needs are being met — that’s our primary focus,” Miranda said.

The district reported that attendance levels were more than 60 percent below normal levels on the first four days of the strike. Superintendent Austin Beutner noted in a news conference Tuesday that two schools serving high proportions of students experiencing homelessness and poverty, Telfair Elementary and Virgil Middle School, had higher attendance than many others on the first day.

At Telfair Elementary, where about 22 percent of students are experiencing homelessness, attendance hovered between 42 percent and 50 percent this week, according to data provided to LA School Report by Principal José Razo.

As an alternative to schools, the City of Los Angeles increased staff and extended hours at 37 recreation centers to help with childcare. The centers are also providing lunches and snacks for children. The mayor’s office said about between 550 and 1,100 students came to the centers each day.

1. The district is encouraging children to come to school.

Schools are providing three meals a day to students who show up, and school buses will continue to run for students who ride them. Substitute teachers and school administrators are supervising students who come to class.

Though many of the staff who regularly work with students at schools are on the picket lines, Miranda said people will be on hand to identify students as homeless. Once students are identified, they will be able to immediately enroll in school, as required by federal law, and get tokens for public transportation if they need it.

Families can also get support from coordinated entry sites and wellness centers throughout the county, Miranda said.

2. Routines are disrupted, leaving parents conflicted.

The strike adds an extra layer of anxiety to the trauma associated with childhood homelessness, said Kimberly Roberts, senior director of stabilization at L.A. Family Housing, a nonprofit that helps families transition out of homelessness.

“Any sort of disruption in routine has a significant impact on children experiencing homelessness,” Roberts told LA School Report. “For many of the children that we work with that are students at LAUSD, their school site is one of the only consistent things that they have on a day-to-day basis. Going to school, having it be open at the same time, closed at the same time, having their teacher there — is something that they really seek to have in a day-to-day routine.”

Additionally, schools are also the main source of meals for many children, so keeping them out of class can add to parents’ stress, Roberts said.

Razo, the Telfair principal, said his students’ parents seem to be split about whether to bring their children to school during the strike.

“Parents are conflicted,” he said. “They support their teachers, but they want them back” in the classroom too. Razo has been teaching while his teachers are out, and while the students might “get a kick out of it, it’s never going to take the place of their teachers.”

Nevertheless, teachers at Telfair have been greeting their students and giving them high fives each morning without crossing the picket line.

“My kids go outside and give [their teachers] hugs. The relationship continues,” Razo said.

3. Teachers, counselors and social workers — whom homeless students rely on — are all on strike.

Teachers, social workers, counselors, school nurses, psychologists and others are members of United Teachers Los Angeles, and most if not all are out of the schools this week. All of these professionals work with students experiencing homelessness on a regular basis. Central office staff, who arrange transportation and oversee the homeless services, are still working.

Miranda added that the strike shows that schools in the district are “more than just instructional settings” because they provide healthcare, counseling and other necessities for students. More than 80 percent of students in L.A. Unified are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and Miranda said 17,039 students are classified as homeless.

One of UTLA’s demands is an increase in counseling services and for every school to have a full-time nurse.

Juliana Leon, a student-teacher and a parent in the district, acknowledged that disrupting students’ routines can be harmful but said the teachers’ activism will ultimately improve conditions for the most vulnerable students.

“While I agree that the strike impacts children’s daily routine, I think a greater impact has been lack of mental health services, access to health services via school nurses, overcrowded classrooms, etc.,” Leon told LA School Report in a message on Twitter.

“Although students are missing instructional days, it’s important to fight for these services now. Teachers aren’t able to support their students if these services aren’t in place,” she added. “A full-time school psychologist, a full-time school nurse can provide students with the support they need to focus on their schoolwork.”

The Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to give L.A. Unified an additional $10 million to increase mental health staff and services in schools. The district accounted for the additional funding in its most recent offer to the union.

4. The federal shutdown is another looming crisis for families who are struggling.

So far, Roberts of L.A. Family Housing said, the families she knows haven’t felt the effects of the federal government shutdown. But they could be coming. States, including California, are urging families who receive food assistance to budget their February payment — which they will receive on or before Jan. 20 — as it could be weeks before the next payment comes if the shutdown drags on, Politico reported. (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are now known, is a federal program administered at the state level.)

“There are some signs that there are some looming crises pending” because of the shutdown, Roberts said. She mentioned the limits on food assistance and uncertainty around housing voucher programs administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

If it continues into March, the federal shutdown could also threaten funding for school meal programs, Politico reported.

5. Where can parents get information?

The following resources are available for families experiencing homelessness:

  • To learn more about district resources and services, visit the Homeless Education Program website.
  • For services and resources specific to families experiencing homelessness, such as food bank locations and questions about enrollment and transportation, call the homeless education program: 213-202-7581.
  • For information about the strike, call the district strike hotline: 213-443-1300.

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