Tihara Williams and her son Terrion, 5, on the steps in front of their northwest Oklahoma City apartment. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Larysa Paxton is a junior at Putnam City North High School but feels like she is repeating elementary school. As schools across the state have adopted home-based learning plans for the remainder of the academic year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Paxton is taking on the role of teacher for her younger siblings, including the youngest who is in fifth-grade. 

“What they do in fifth grade now is not what I did when I was in the fifth grade,” Paxton said. “I have to go online and YouTube to watch videos on how to teach some of this stuff so I know what I am doing.”

Paxton’s family of four school-age girls and their single mother have lived in their northwest Oklahoma City home for nearly five months after assistance from the Homeless Alliance. 

Paxton’s mother, Laurelle, who has health complications and struggles with anxiety, is trying to get another computer device so each of her four daughters will have a way to access online lessons from their schools. 

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“I worry about the younger ones keeping on track,” Laurelle said.“My oldest daughter is really helping me. I have internet at the moment but with the money crisis I don’t know how long they are going to have it.”

For families experiencing homelessness and housing instability, the move to distance learning has siblings taking on the role of teachers, parents scrambling to find ways to access online lesson plans and families navigating the everyday challenge of accessing food and medication in addition to completing the school year without a classroom. 

At a time when homeless students and those experiencing extreme poverty already face a wide academic gap compared to their peers, the loss of teacher-led instruction could create an even larger gap. 

“Our students are the ones who are always on the edge, they really can’t afford to be out of school for two months,” said Susan Agel, president of Positive Tomorrows, an Oklahoma City school that serves homeless students.

At least 75 percent of homeless students perform below grade level in reading and math and one study found homeless preschoolers recognized fewer words than 99 percent of their peers. 

Nearly 26,000 Oklahoma students are considered homeless, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Most are living with another family or have just recently found stable housing, while many live in shelters. 

Teachers across the state spent much of last week attempting to reconnect with students and families ahead of the April 6 launch of distance learning programs. But contacting families with unstable housing can be a challenge as addresses and phone numbers frequently change. 

“We’ve been calling families but most numbers we have there is no answer,” said Kathy Brown, the homeless coordinator for Oklahoma City Public Schools, where teachers were still trying to reach 6,551 students as of Thursday.

Privacy laws prevent homeless shelters from revealing their guests so Brown leaves messages in the hopes it will get to the right family. 

At Positive Tomorrows, Agel and her staff have been focused on ensuring families have computers and internet access at home. Students use Chromebooks while at school, but Agel said she wants to provide students with a laptop they can take home even when school opens again.

“That (digital) divide exists for these kids even under normal circumstances,” Agel said.  

Of the school’s 50 families at least 11 needed internet services and about half were without a computer. 

Sarah Sheldon, a kindergarten and first grade teacher at Positive Tomorrows, has been trying to connect with students through daily videos she posts to a Facebook group that parents can show their children. 

“I post little videos, little activities for them to do at least once a day,” Sheldon said. “I read a book to them and ask them some questions, just to keep them learning as much as possible and able to see me because I know a lot of them are scared and confused.”

Leanna Alvarez shows her son Jy’den a video by his kindergarten teacher at Positive Tomorrows. PROVIDED/Positive Tomorrows

After being away from Sheldon’s class for nearly three weeks, Jy’den Gray was still able to recognize the face of his teacher on his mother’s smartphone. 

“He got so excited when he saw Mrs. Sheldon talking on the screen,” said Leanna Alvarez, Jy’den’s mother. 

Alvarez, 28, was able to get a house last year with help from social agencies, including counselors at Positive Tomorrows. 

During a normal school day she travels by bus for more than two and a half hours to get Jy’den to school and then to work but said it was well worth it because he was behind at the start of the school year.  

“But this year he has learned his numbers, he learned how to spell his name and Mrs. Sheldon thinks he has grown a lot,” Alvarez said.

Positive Tomorrows was able to get a Cox internet connection for Alvarez. 

“I am looking at this Cox box and I’m not sure what to do with it but I know they will help me,” Alvarez said. 

Agel hopes technology in the home can help her students catch up or at least avoid falling behind. 

“We see fourth graders who can’t read or have never been in school before,” Agel said. “When we have a normal break we have students come back who slid further behind, so I know this time away will be a big challenge.” 

Tihara Williams is a single mom to Terrion, a kindergartener in the Putnam City school district. Health problems prevent Williams from working but her days are now filled with her trying to help her son work on his numbers and letters. 

She plays catch with him in the courtyard of their apartment complex, having Terrion count by tens each time he catches the football. 

“I have to get into that teacher mode,” Williams said. “I want him to be ready for the first grade, that’s all I’m worried about.”

Williams thought she could manage his lessons on paper or using her smartphone. But she quickly realized Terrion needed a computer and the nonprofit Our Neighborhood Empowered was able to get him a laptop. 

“The website (the school) gave us is kind of complicated and I’m having password and username issues,” Williams said. “I’m just confused about when he gets everything done how are they supposed to know that he did his work?”

While parents are trying to work through the realities of distance learning, many are also dealing with a sudden loss of income. 

Alvarez, the parent of a Positive Tomorrows kindergartener, recently had her shift at McDonald’s cut to five hours for the last pay period as the restaurant’s dining room was forced to close. 

Agel said the school is trying to help the multiple families who have experienced a lost job in the last few weeks. 

“It’s always those folks who are being paid the lower hourly wage who are the first to be laid off,” Agel said. 

Many districts in Oklahoma receive federal funding to help support homeless students, including funds for school uniforms, bus passes and groceries. 

Brown, the homeless coordinator for Oklahoma City schools, said she worries those needs will increase as the economy continues to decline.

“There are going to be so many families that have to move in with other families or start living in a motel because they have just enough money to pay for a night,” Brown said. “I think we are going to have a surge of homeless students in the coming months.”