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Spotty Wi-Fi and Noisy Shelters: How Online Learning Is Failing Homeless Kids

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Most nights, people fight and scream outside the small room where Elizabeth Maldonado and her four children sleep—or try to, at least—at a homeless shelter in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Maldonado’s 15-year-old daughter, in particular, fears that if she closes her eyes, someone will burst through the door. 

It’s no wonder, then, that her kids—ages 17, 15, 12, and 9—often don’t log on to their virtual classes come morning, Maldonado said. They’re exhausted.  

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maldonado’s children are stuck in the room they share at the shelter, without the escape of going to school. They sometimes attend online classes from their beds, where they’re reluctant to turn on audio or video to talk to teachers and peers, as it would betray their cramped, noisy surroundings. And if they leave to find a quieter space, there’s the risk their stuff may be stolen. 

“They want to go back to school,” Maldonado, a 46-year-old single mother, said. “The 15-year-old, she goes like, ‘Mommy, how could I log myself into class when they’re standing in front of the bedroom door screaming, yelling, cussing? I don’t want my teacher to hear all that when he calls out my name.’”

Maldonado doesn’t know if any of her children will be held back a year due to their chronic absences, she said. But she knows it’s not their fault.

About 1.5 million homeless schoolchildren, like Maldonado’s kids, rely on America’s education system for food, emotional help, a quiet place to learn with greater access to technology, and a sense of normalcy. So, when the virus thrust tens of millions of students and their families into an online learning environment that most schools weren’t prepared for, homeless kids suffered. They no longer had a place they could spend their days, just focused on learning, before heading back to shared housing, hotels, shelters, cars, and other unstable living circumstances.

School districts have tried to make it work. In the past several months, they’ve doled out laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to kids who can’t afford them, since nearly 17 million children lack high-speed internet access at home. Luckily, those sorts of efforts mean Maldonado’s kids have two Wi-Fi hotspots to share and laptops to use at the shelter. 

School buses have been used to distribute free meals that would’ve otherwise been enjoyed in cafeterias. Some nonprofits and school districts have even set up in-person “hubs” for homeless kids who just need a safe place for online learning. 

Homeless student liaisons have also tracked down kids at laundromats and motels to ensure families don’t miss out on much-needed services or a fair, equal education. In Maldonado’s case, a teacher purchased headphones for one of her kids so they could listen to relaxing music at night, she said. 

“I just tell my kids, ‘All this will be over soon.’”

Even so, advocates and experts are concerned it’s not going to be enough to repair months of turmoil. Kids might be trying to learn from unstable, complicated environments, or, worst of all, might’ve dropped off the map.

“They’ve lost stability, normalcy, routine, safety, food, people who care for them, friends, and, of course, education as well,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit that focuses on youth homelessness and education. “Very few and far between are the children who do better in a virtual setting.”

Long-term consequences

Nearly half of all U.S. school districts opted to restart this academic year with full, in-person instruction, according to an August report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Opening the year with an all-remote learning plan was more prevalent in urban districts with high concentrations of poverty and student homelessness, like Chicago.

“The communities who came into this epidemic with the fewest resources are the communities that are the most pressed to provide supports for their students,” said Anne Farrell, director of research at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Her work has long focused on systems that can support individuals and families experiencing adversity, including homelessness. 

But even in districts where it’s possible to return to school, it’s not always in an impoverished child’s best interest. COVID-19 is still raging. And many homeless students have disabilities, are in poor health, or live with people for whom exposure to the virus could be deadly. So they’re forced to learn online for their safety.

Cintucker Powell, for example, fears for her 11-year-old son, SirLaurance Jones, who is asthmatic and at a higher risk of becoming ill with the virus. SirLaurance, who is also autistic and developmentally disabled, can’t wear a mask for very long and has a habit of putting his fingers and other items into his mouth. So he didn’t return to in-person school in Lawton, Oklahoma, this fall, even though the option was available to him.

That means Powell, a 44-year-old single mother who’s also disabled, is trying to assist her son with online learning from the tiny one-room home where she’s currently crashing with an older family friend. While there’s internet access, there’s no cooking stove and little privacy. And she’s worried she won’t be allowed to stay there for long. 

SirLaurance has regressed during online learning. Words she’s worked hard to put into his vocabulary—like, “Help me,” and, “eat”—have faded away. He does, however, repeat “school bus,” since he’s wondering when it’ll come back to pick him up. 

He’s also grown more agitated.  SirLaurance and Powell log on to class together when they can, but they often wait to do schoolwork until the evening, when he’s calmer. In the meantime, Powell can’t afford the gas to travel to the locations where her local school district is distributing free meals. She’s worried SirLaurance can sense her stress.

Powell could escape homelessness with her fixed monthly disability income of $1,606 if she received help paying for a unit and utility deposit—which she’s currently fundraising for.  What SirLaurance needs, she said, is a space where she could make learning fun for him again. She imagines living in a place where they’d have room to play or set up a little mock-classroom.

“He is why I am doing what I’m doing to try and make a better life for us, for him. Why I keep going and why I keep trying,” said Powell, who was hoping to build a career in the criminal justice system before she fell behind in her own college lessons due to the stress of the pandemic. “I just want what’s best for him. I don’t want to spoil him, I just want to give him what he needs.” 

For families without internet access, it’s even more dire. N., a mother of four who lives in a Texas hotel, said that virtual learning worked well for her kids until her Wi-Fi hotspot gave out. (She asked VICE News to use few identifying details because she’s a survivor of domestic abuse.) When she sought help from the technology assistant at her child’s school, she was told to sign up for Comcast’s Xfinity, which costs $10 a month. She can’t afford that. 

“They’ll be in the middle of class and it just cuts off.” 

As of Oct. 8, her children had missed a week and a half of classes purely because they didn’t have the means to log on. 

“I don’t want them to miss a lot of days,” she said. “They’ll be in the middle of class and it just cuts off.” 

N., like Powell, opted in to remote learning. Her two youngest children still need to be enrolled in school. One of them, a 5-year-old, is autistic and has a heart condition.

N.’s family was kicked out of a shelter that was concerned about the spread of COVID-19 last spring, along with other homeless residents, she said. She could only afford the hotel room—and the small bit of stability it offers— because of a GoFundMe campaign.

“I don’t want to have to go back to another shelter and have my kids acting worse than what they are,” she said. 

Chronic absenteeism—whether it’s caused by shoddy internet access or a turbulent lifestyle—has been linked to an increased risk of not completing high school, which, in turn, puts young people at a greater risk for experiencing homelessness later in life. Regularly missing class can hinder academic achievements and spur weaker reading proficiency,  While nationwide attendance data specifically related to homeless students is limited, some families are unquestionably finding it more difficult to access the sort of education they had pre-pandemic.

“As we look at the larger issue over time of homeless, we’re looking at growing the ranks because we don’t have kids in school right now,” Duffield said.

Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children of New York, said it’s unclear how many of New York City’s roughly 114,000 homeless kids just stopped regularly showing up for school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, local city council members subpoenaed the city’s Department of Education for student attendance data broken down by race, gender, and class level, while also including whether the absent students were living in temporary housing, disabled, or English-language learners. 

“The dropout rate was already high, and there’s a concern about whether that increases,” Levine said.

Levine’s organization has heard about instances of New York City’s homeless children falling behind or losing critical skills during online learning. Although the city worked out iPads and T-Mobile hotspots for homeless students, attorneys noted in a recent letter to the city’s departments of education and homeless services that shelters often fall in cellular “dead zones.” 

Homeless parents aren’t always able to sit with their children at the shelter and help out, either, since they have to go to work, Levine said. Some also speak a language other than English and struggle to assist their children in comprehending assignments. (Kids in New York City are now allowed to return to in-person class for part of the week, but about half of the city’s schoolchildren are still doing fully virtual lessons.) 

One older homeless girl even stopped eating during the distress caused by remote learning, Levine said. School was a haven for her. 

That goes to show that children will need intensive support—including emotional support—once they return to school, according to Levine. How that will be accomplished when New York City is in an economic crisis, she said, is unclear. 

Elizabeth Maldonado’s eldest son, Robert, a 17-year-old high school junior, says there’s still hope for kids like him, though. He asked that VICE News not use his full name. 

While he’s not getting as much help these days in figuring out his college applications, he hopes to become an interior designer. He said he’s been diligent in trying to attend all his classes from the confines of the shelter, although he sometimes misses his earliest lessons. He’s often up until 3 a.m. And he rarely turns on his camera or microphone once he’s in class. 

“I personally believe that in-person learning is a lot better for me—I like to participate in groups and I’m more of a hands-on learner,” Robert said. “Right now I have all my assignments turned in and I’m pretty much up-to-date.”

Maldonado said Robert has always been a good student. But she’s a mom, so she worries. It’s important to her that all of her kids graduate high school because she did not. And a diploma would allow them to go further in life. 

But as long as she’s staying in the Englewood homeless shelter—and as long as there’s remote learning—working toward that goal will be challenging. On Tuesday, she said she had reached her breaking point with the shelter and was looking to go stay with a friend from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, where she works.

“I just tell my kids, ‘All this will be over soon,’” Maldonado said. “We’ll be in our own home where they can attend classes, where they can actually turn the cameras on because they’ll have their own spot. They’ll be in their own different, private places.” 

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US to base Coast Guard ships in western Pacific to tackle China

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The United States will deploy Coast Guard patrol ships in the western Pacific to counter what it described as “destabilizing and malign” activities in the region by China, the country’s top security adviser said on Friday.

The US Coast Guard was “strategically homeporting significantly enhanced Fast Response Cutters … in the western Pacific,” White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said in a statement.

Describing the US as a Pacific power, the statement added that China’s “illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and harassment of vessels operating in the exclusive economic zones of other countries in the Indo-Pacific threatens our sovereignty, as well as the sovereignty of our Pacific neighbors and endangers regional stability”.

It said US efforts, including by the Coast Guard, were “critical to countering these destabilizing and malign actions.”

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the statement, which came just ahead of a planned visit to Asia by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne pose prior to their bilateral meeting in Tokyo on October 6, 2020 ahead of the four Indo-Pacific nations’ foreign ministers meeting. – (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / POOL / AFP)

Pompeo led a meeting of the so-called Quad in Tokyo this month. Washington hopes the grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia can act as a bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness and extensive maritime claims in the region, including to nearly all of the South China Sea.

On Sunday, Pompeo will begin a five-day tour of India – where he will be accompanied by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper – and then he will continue on to Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia. Maritime security and a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will be high on the agenda, the State Department said.

Incursions

In July, Esper condemned a “catalogue of bad behaviour” in the South China Sea over the previous months, accusing the Chinese military of having sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat, harassing Malaysian oil and gas vessels and escorting Chinese fishing fleets into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

O’Brien added that the Coast Guard, which is under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was also studying whether to permanently station several of its patrol ships in the area of American Samoa in the South Pacific.

Last month, Indonesia protested after Chinese coastguard ships travelled into its exclusive economic zone, which is situated between its own territorial waters and international waters and where the state claims exclusive rights to develop natural resources.

China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea as its own. Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines also claim the parts of the sea nearest to their shores.

The US Navy regularly conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations in the disputed sea – angering China, which has developed military outposts on islands and islets.

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An island built from coral: How Indonesia’s Bajau made a home

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Bungin Island, Sumbawa, Indonesia – Scattered across many of the islands and coastal communities in Southeast Asia, the Bajau, numbering about one million people, are the world’s largest remaining group of sea nomads. But their culture is under threat.

In the Sulu Sea between Borneo and the Philippines, where the Bajau have roamed the ocean for 1,000 years, insurrection by the Abu Sayyaf armed group has led to an increased military presence and curfews restricting movements on both sides of the border.

On the islands of southern Thailand, where the group are known as Moken, they live in stilt shanties that cling like barnacles to coastlines that are rapidly being consumed by buildings built for tourists.

In Indonesia and peninsula Malaysia, many Bajau have given up ocean-based life by marrying people from local communities and seeking jobs in the cities.

But one Bajau community on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa has preserved its unique way of life by building their own islet out of coral, allowing it to evolve separately from the mainland.

With 3,500 residents on just 8.5 hectares (21 acres) of land, Bungin Island also stands out as the most densely populated of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.

No crime

When the first Bajau arrived in Sumbawa from the southern Philippines 200 years ago, Bungin Island was just a sandbank on the north coast. In the Bajo language, Bungin means “a mound of white sand”.

Traditionally, the Bajau harvested coral to make foundations for their homes, expanding what was once a sandbank [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

They built their spartan stilt houses on the sand, but as their numbers grew, they enlarged the island by harvesting coral to build foundations for houses on low-lying sections of the surrounding reef. With the help of relatives and friends, it typically takes a week to build a 70-square metre (172-square acre) plot and structure.

“We have a good life here and we have enough money because all the time, every day and night, we are looking for fish,” said Surat, a Bungin Island elder, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.

The Bajau are accomplished fishermen and free-divers who can remain underwater for as long as eight minutes on a single breath. Some children have their eardrums pierced to prevent them from bursting from water pressure while diving.

Studies of Bajau who start diving from young have shown their spleens, the organs which store oxygenated red blood cells, are 50 percent bigger than average.

Bungin Island has also developed a strong sense of community. When the heat of the day eases at dusk, people come out onto the tightly packed streets to shop, mingle, eat and pray in the mosque.

The Bajau are renowned for their ability to free dive and are famous for their salted fish [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Indonesians are renowned for their hospitality but on Bungin Island they really roll out the red carpet, sharing drinks, meals, laughter and conversation with visitors. And apparently, there is no crime on the islet.

“We don’t have locks on our doors,” said Rizky, Surat’s neighbour. “Everyone knows each other so it’s not possible to steal anything here.”

‘The problem with corona’

The nature of the sea gypsies’ lifestyle means they have missed out on many basic services.

Bajau communities in Indonesia are lacking “in the areas of health and education … [and] many Bajau are illiterate,” found the Joshua Project, a research project focused on Indigenous cultures with Christian minorities.

In the mid-1990s, the Indonesian government embarked on several large infrastructure projects to drag Bungin Island into the 21st century.

It built a wide sand causeway linking the island to the mainland and making it easier for islanders to sell their salted fish at mainland markets.

Nearly all the Bajau on Bungin island are Sunni Muslims [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

It also built a large government school on the mainland-end of the causeway and connected the islet to the national power grid. And tackled overcrowding by shipping in thousands of tonnes of sand to reclaim an additional 2.5 hectares (6.1 acres) of land from the seafloor.

The causeway also had an unintended effect – it turned Bungin Island into Sumbawa’s leading attraction for domestic tourists who would come to marvel at the paper-eating goats.

As plants cannot grow on the islet, the domesticated goats that roam the streets search instead for paper, cardboard and cloth. For many children, the highlight of visiting the islet was to feed the goats pages from their exercise books. For adults, it was long lazy lunches at Resto Apung, a floating seafood restaurant and fish farm with breathtaking coast and mountain views.

But when Indonesia temporarily banned domestic travel in April to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, tourism came to an end. With Indonesia’s coronavirus outbreak still surging, it has yet to recover.

“We had many tourists before the problem with corona,” said Surat. “But as we live so close together it is impossible to socially distance. The restaurant and our guesthouse had to close.”

Rubbish dump

The causeway has also brought more worrying problems.

Plastic and other household waste has collected around the shore of Bungin Island [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Before it was built, islanders ate only seafood, some greens and ric, and used organic materials like coconut shells and palm fronds as bags.

Easy access to the mainland introduced cheap packaged foods, water bottles and plastic bags and no waste management system to deal with it.

The result is that Bungin Island has been turned into a rubbish dump; its shores are carpeted with tonnes of rotting waste – all of which ends up in the delicate marine ecosystem the Bajau depend on to survive.

When asked about the problem, islanders laugh – a typical Indonesian response to awkward questions and social situations.

But a study published by the University of Queensland in July on plastic literacy in remote Indonesian coastal communities found a majority of people in the communities did not see the plastic waste as a threat and believed its only negative effect was to “make the village look dirty”.

The study’s authors suggested a two-pronged solution: the creation of “rubbish banks” – a term used in Indonesia for a recycling facility where plastic can be sold, sorted, shredded and moved down the value chain; and plastic awareness and environmental education.

Goats live on the island subsisting on a diet of paper and cardboard [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Awareness initiatives have already led to changes of some centuries-old traditions.

In the past, customary law dictated that young people who wanted to marry had to harvest coral to build a home of their own. The 21st-century residents of Bungin have different ideas.

“Now, if you get married, you stay with your parents and slowly, you save up money to buy a house on Bungin,” said Surat. “Most people do it this way because it’s easier than building with coral and doesn’t hurt the reef where the fish live so we can keep on fishing.”

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NIH director says Covid-19 vaccine authorization ‘might not happen’ this year

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French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) chairs a meeting with the medical staff of the René Dubos hospital center, in Pontoise, in the Val d'Oise, on October 23, 2020, as the country faces a new wave of infections to the Covid-19.
French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) chairs a meeting with the medical staff of the René Dubos hospital center, in Pontoise, in the Val d’Oise, on October 23, 2020, as the country faces a new wave of infections to the Covid-19. Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

France reported a new daily record for coronavirus infections with 42,032 new cases in the past 24 hours, according to numbers released by country’s health agency on Friday.

This brings the total number of confirmed cases in France to 1,041,075, according to French government statistics, and marks the first time the government’s coronavirus case tally has surpassed 1 million. 

France also recorded 298 additional coronavirus deaths, bringing the death toll to 34,508, according to the French Health Agency. 

According to government data, an additional 976 coronavirus patients have been admitted to the hospital, and a further 122 coronavirus patients entered intensive care in the last 24 hours. 

Speaking at a health center this afternoon, French President Emmanuel Macron said he expects France will have to live with the virus until at least the summer of 2021.

“When I listen to the scientists, and the Scientific Council, we foresee [living with the virus] at best until next summer,” Macron said. “It is still too early to say whether we are moving towards wider local re-confinements, we will try each time to reduce the places, the moments when we have identified that the virus was circulating a lot. This is the strategy we will pursue.”

Macron added that the government aims to implement new restrictions in the most targeted way possible. 

From midnight on Friday, France’s nighttime coronavirus curfew will be extended more widely, with 46 million French people affected, announced French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Thursday. 

To note: According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, France has recorded 1,048,924 coronavirus cases and 34,236 deaths. CNN’s Paris Bureau is working on clarifying the discrepancy between state statistics and the university’s numbers.

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