Story by Nomin Ujiyediin
LAWRENCE, Kansas — When school buildings across Kansas shut down in March, parents and students had to adjust to shorter class times, Zoom sessions and take-home packets.
Meanwhile, families in the foster care system faced extra challenges: keeping up with training sessions, therapy appointments and social worker visits.
School is already hard enough for many foster kids. They’re more likely to have mental health concerns that need treatment, and learning disorders or disabilities that require special education plans.
Many of those families found themselves struggling to take care of those needs online, Kansas foster care agencies report. Some families relied on their phones for internet access, while others used hotspots provided by schools. And kinship families — they take in foster children who are relatives — are even more likely to struggle with finding the technology they need.
At first, many families struggled with having fast enough internet to access virtual classes and appointments, said Denise Cross, president and CEO of Cornerstones of Care, an organization that contracts with the state to provide foster care services. On top of that, many parents taking care of foster kids didn’t have computers and had to rely on their cellphones for internet access and potential costs for using more data.
Kinship families are especially likely to lack laptops or other devices for school because they tend to be lower-income. While the state has strict income requirements for foster families who aren’t related to the children they take care of, those requirements aren’t as strict kinship families.
“There’s a set of... relative homes that really do not have that consistent access,” Cross said.
The end result could be that children with high needs fall even further behind than their peers during a time of disrupted routines and limited social interaction.
“Our foster youth … tend to have widening learning gaps just because of the disruption and the trauma that they’ve experienced,” Cross said. “The platforms that everyone is pivoting and turning to, it just creates additional challenges.”
Mental health and special ed
Adequate access to broadband is a prominent issue in the rural parts of Kansas, where some residents don’t have internet service fast enough to support video conferencing. Service can also be patchy in some of the state’s largest urban counties. A 2019 report from the Federal Communications Commission shows that 28% of rural Kansas households surveyed didn’t have internet speeds faster than 25 megabits per second, compared to only 2% of urban Kansas households.
But through the spring and summer, many school districts gave Wi-Fi hotspots, computers or tablets to families who needed them, foster care agencies said. Districts also gave assignments on paper to students who didn’t have internet access. Plus, many schools in rural areas are holding at least some in-person classes because the number of cases in those places is relatively low.
While access to devices has improved, children with special needs and mental health conditions — including many foster children — still might have trouble getting the help they need, said Jessica Lane, an assistant professor of special education, counseling and student affairs at Kansas State University.
“Schools have naturally become the de facto mental health provider,” she said.
Students’ mental health may have been hurt by the pandemic, Lane said, even if it may be too early to tell exactly how.
“Teachers are seeing that there’s a growing level of trauma,” she said.
Some schools have been providing mental health services over video, Lane said. And some have been providing counseling and special ed lessons in person in a socially distanced way, said Linda Arthington of St. Francis Ministries, one of the state’s largest foster care providers. Students with learning disorders or trauma in their pasts, who may already have trouble focusing, might be struggling even more with learning from home.
“Sometimes they just need that one-on-one,” Arthington said. “A lot of them need structure.”
For now, she said, so much has changed since the spring that it’s hard to tell how foster students will fare in school, whether they attend in person, online or in a combination of the two Families with multiple kids and adults working from home will soon find out whether their internet speeds can handle the new school year.
“Over the next month,” Arthington said, “we’ll start learning a lot more.”
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Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.