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South Kansas City School Districts Have Ways To Support Students During Pandemic, But They Have To Find Them First

A Center School District employee helps package donations for Impact Center, a program that supports families who are experiencing homelessness.
Submitted photo
Center School District
A Center School District employee helps package donations for Impact Center, a program that supports families who are experiencing homelessness.

Educators in Center and Hickman Mills Schools worry the pandemic will make many of their students homeless.

Even after metrowide stay-at-home orders went into effect two months ago, Kansas City students continued to switch schools.

Hickman Mills Interim Superintendent Carl Skinner said the district enrolled about 20 students after school buildings closed in March. Other students are doing Hickman Mills coursework even though they’re living in other districts now.

It isn’t uncommon to lose track of students at the end of a school year in districts where families move frequently, and the mobility rate in Hickman Mills is nearly twice the state average. But this year, it wasn’t practical to tell students to enroll elsewhere when they were already learning online.

“So we’ve worked out a system saying, ‘OK, they can stay with us even though they’re living in your area at the moment,” Skinner said, “and then at the end of the school year we’ll help them make that transition to the new district.”

Since the pandemic began, administrators like Skinner have had the herculean task of keeping track of students who aren’t coming to school every day, but Hickman Mills officials say they’ve been able to make contact with 97% of students.

It hasn’t been easy.

“Our curriculum and instruction department put together a (spreadsheet) of every classroom in the district so that we could track on a daily basis when we actually have some kind of contact with the student, whether they log into Google classroom, whether it’s an email or a phone call,” Skinner said.

At the middle and high school level, it’s up to students’ advisory teachers to enter that contact into the spreadsheet.

“When we see a gap, let’s say three or four days, we go back and reach out to the student,” Skinner said. “Sometimes we find out, ‘Well, I haven’t been able to make contact, but someone else has.’”

A few weeks into remote learning, Skinner sent letters to the 207 students the district hadn’t been able to contact.

“You know, we’ve missed you right now, I hope you’re OK, please contact your teacher or contact me,” he said.

Skinner acknowledged that it isn’t a perfect system.

“But it’s worked OK.”

Families in crisis

In neighboring Center School District, it’s Stacy King’s job to provide family and student support services. For about a year now, the district has been helping support families experiencing homelessness through an initiative called Impact Center aimed at connecting them to social service organizations and helping them find housing.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on was this idea of personal connections between Impact Center and the families we’re supporting,” King said. “That obviously included face-to-face conversations and interactions with our community partners, and now none of those things are possible.”

The pandemic has forced educators to figure out how to provide that personalized support in a really impersonal way, like curbside pickup of toilet paper and other hard-to-find necessities.

Impact Center families have been able to pick up necessities from the school district while practicing social distancing.
Submitted photo
Center School District
Impact Center families have been able to pick up necessities from the school district while practicing social distancing.

“It’s such a moving target,” King said. “The need today may change a week from now or two weeks from now.”

As in Hickman, there are Center students living elsewhere right now. King said she’s been coordinating with nearby Kansas City Public Schools, Raytown and Lee’s Summit to make sure that kids living in those districts can pick up food at their distribution sites.

King is frustrated that it’s taking so long for pandemic aid to reach the most vulnerable families. Missouri’s application for federal food aid for students who normally eat free meals at school was only approved Monday. Economic stimulus checks still haven’t reached families who don’t have a bank account, which nearly all Impact Center families lack.

Further complicating things, most of the families King works with have moved at least once since the last time they filed their taxes.

“We have families that need to pay the rent now. We have families that have an electric bill due now,” King said.

If it takes another month for assistance to reach them, King said, some of the families Center is trying to keep in their homes or apartments could be living in hotels. The eviction moratorium in effect in Jackson County since the pandemic began ends May 31.

Jane Worley of Legal Aid of Western Missouri has worked on housing issues for more than 20 years. She said if families have received unemployment or other income during the pandemic, now is the time to work out a payment plan with landlords.

“That way you may be able to avoid even the filing of an eviction,” Worley said. “Sometimes when landlords think when people aren’t going to ever pay, they go ahead and file an eviction. Once they do that, they sort of dig in and it’s more difficult to get a payment arrangement.

In Hickman Mills, referrals to Legal Aid are down 66%, but Skinner doesn’t think it’s because families don’t need help.

“I don’t think they’re asking,” he said.

Hickman Mills has created a resource map where families can put in their address and find food, housing, utility and medical assistance. More than a thousand people have already visited it, Skinner said.

Now that Kansas City is reopening, Skinner is worried that COVID-19 cases will spike among low-income families who are least able to continue sheltering in place. He said since schools closed, he’s been more worried about students’ health and safety than whether they’re logging in every day.

“Don’t get me wrong, I know we have to have rigor, but right now we have families that don’t have jobs right now. They don’t have money coming in, and we’re asking them to worry about schoolwork?” Skinner said. “I’m more concerned with students being OK and the family being OK.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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