Schools improved online learning since last spring. So why are these students less engaged?

Nearly halfway through the school year, foster youth were still disengaged from online learning, and one expert fears that Washington state is losing a generation of vulnerable kids to the pandemic.

According to the results of a new survey from Treehouse, a nonprofit that serves more than 7,800 foster youth across Washington, those students were less engaged in late November than they were in the spring.

The findings are jarring — especially because the last time foster youth were surveyed, between March and June, was a more chaotic moment as schools unexpectedly shut down because of the pandemic. Over the summer, districts regrouped and created more intentional plans to teach online while stepping up their technology distribution.

Remote instruction has been tough on foster youth and families, said Dawn Rains, Treehouse’s chief policy and strategy officer. “They’re not getting the social interaction they would (in school),” she said. “We’re seeing high mental health needs. There’s a lot of depression and anxiety.” Thirty-one percent of respondents said they had a moderate or high need for mental health support.

While the November survey showed that more students had access to technology — of all the 1,175 students ages 3-24 surveyed, only seven students had no device, and only six had no internet access — students were still less academically connected. Forty percent of students served by Treehouse reported being “only somewhat engaged” in school, and 9{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} were completely disengaged. This summer, about a quarter of students were “somewhat disengaged.” Treehouse changed the way it formulated the question, so the answers don’t perfectly match.

The continued levels of disengagement troubled Rains, particularly because the students who responded to the survey were more engaged than those who didn’t. “I would have expected these numbers to have been even worse if we had looked at the entire population,” she said. 

Foster youth are vulnerable because they often move from place to place; a safe and stable home is not guaranteed in the shuffle. They’re also more likely to have gotten in trouble with the law, representing 40{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} percent of youth in Washington’s juvenile rehabilitation system. Treehouse leaders attribute that statistic to the disparate discipline that foster youth receive in school when their trauma and loss is misunderstood.

“We’re at risk of losing a generation of kids in foster care to the pandemic,” Lisa Chin, Treehouse CEO, said in a statement. “Disengagement is growing.” 

Forty-four percent of students surveyed reported needing academic remediation to address the learning they’ve missed in school. That, Rains said, could come in the form of homework help, encouragement to study, or further instruction to make up the entire grade levels that some of them missed. 

One student who had attended class every day last year missed 21 days of instruction this year, a Treehouse Graduation Success coordinator said. His grades have slipped to one B, two Ds, and four Fs. “I offer him incentive after incentive, and although he keeps agreeing to the goals and wants the incentive, he is not engaging at all,” the coordinator said.

The survey found that the rate of youth moving to new homes and school enrollment changes had doubled since spring. Rains said it might be because kids are being put into permanent homes, in part. But transitions to other foster homes are stressful, especially when it comes to monitoring visits with biological parents — many of which are occurring virtually because of the pandemic. 

The survey comes as Treehouse is asking the state Legislature to better support foster youth by increasing funding for its Graduation Success program by $2 million, among other measures. The program gives students one-on-one help with completing high school. Treehouse is also asking for better services to help youth transition out of the foster care system. 

In Washington, youth can stay in foster care until they’re 21. Tucked into the federal COVID-19 relief bill is a provision that says a state can’t kick kids out of the system right now exclusively because of age. It would also allow students who were exited from the system because they turned 21 to return through their 22nd birthdays. Practically speaking, Rains said, this provision would help young adults with housing and other needs as they become independent amid a stalled economy. 

For those changes to take effect, Gov. Jay Inslee would have to issue a proclamation, because it contradicts current state statute. The Legal Counsel for Youth and Children recently asked Inslee’s office to do so. 

“Advocates are getting a lot of questions from young people who are turning 21 in the coming weeks, as well as those who already aged out during the pandemic and are now eligible for re-entry, as to what it will mean for them and how they can stay connected to their much-needed financial and support services during this chaotic time,” attorney Erin Shea McCann, the organization’s deputy director, wrote in the letter. 

Inslee’s office is looking into implementation and requesting further guidance from the federal government, said spokesperson Tara Lee. The changes, she added, could affect about 175 youth.

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