Back to school during a pandemic

August 31, 2020

As the school year starts, students in Colorado are going back to school online, in-person or doing a hybrid of both. For students in foster care and students who have experienced abuse and neglect, school stability is especially complicated this year. 

Foster parents might also be feeling that instability while they help the young people in their homes adjust.

It’s all about realistic expectations, says foster mom Charity Heggestad of Lafayette.“I was honest with them and tried to let them know that in-person school might not happen in the fall.” Four of Charity’s kids - one in college, one in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school - will start online learning, but her five-year-old in foster care is starting kindergarten in person because that is what her school of origin has decided. 

Caregivers for students in foster care must enroll students in the same school they previously attended to maintain their school stability, but may choose between in-person and remote options. Statewide initiatives aimed at keeping students in foster care in the same school they were previously attending require that a formal “Best Interest Determination” is made before a student changes schools.

“My kindergartener went to pre-K [at the same school last year]  and in-person learning is best for her. Online learning for a five-year-old is challenging. She will be around the same teachers and kids she was around last year. Consistency is key for kids in foster care and kids who have been adopted,” said Charity, who has been a foster parent in Boulder County since 2008. 

Federal laws that require students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to have special accommodations will still apply when students are attending school online. Charity is currently caring for a student with an IEP and says the student has received excellent online services from her school to support her IEP. Being able to keep the same therapists and participate in therapy virtually has also been a positive support to the students in Charity’s household as well as continuing to participate in Taekwondo classes with their instructor and classmates over Zoom.

Remaining in the same school has been shown to have a positive effect on educational outcomes for students in foster care. Most school districts are moving enrollment online this fall often requiring that returning students either re-enroll by the same process as new students or complete some additional steps for online registration. This means caseworkers and foster parents need to work together to ensure enrollment is efficient and successful, especially if a child or youth lives outside the district of the school they should attend. 

In addition to improving academic achievement, school stability for students in foster care also helps reduce some of the social and emotional stress the student has and helps them stay in touch with friends, family members and adults who they trust and who care about them. 

“Our daughter came to live with us in January and then school went online in March. It was hard on her because she didn’t have any friends and we live in a rural area with no neighbors, so she only has our four-year-old niece who lives with us to play with,” said Savanna Kamerzell of Parker who recently adopted her eight-year-old daughter.

Savanna chose to enroll her daughter in the hybrid option at her school so she could have more of the social interaction she needs and less of the screen time that she no longer enjoys as a “special treat.”

The connection with friends and teachers is important for other reasons, too. “Our daughter is a little Black girl growing up in rural Parker; it is important for her to know that she has more people who care about her and support her, not just us,” said Savanna. 

Charity noticed a difference in her oldest daughter, who is a freshman this year and was able to continue participating in softball noting how it increased her confidence and made her happier. Both Charity and Savanna expressed the importance of socialization for children and youth who have experienced foster care and abuse and neglect.

It’s tricky, Charity says, because you want to keep kids safe but they need that socialization and connection with peers, which can be hard to recreate online. 

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Anyone witnessing a child in a life-threatening situation should call 911 immediately.