HomeFront says children who are poor, homeless face challenges with remote learning

HomeFront NJ

When public school resumes next month, many students will be learning remotely at least part of the time.

But for some children – the ones who live in homeless shelters and motels – that kind of learning is not going to make the grade.

That’s the assessment of Connie Mercer, the executive director of HomeFront. The Lawrence-based nonprofit group helps the homeless and the working poor.

“Imagine three children on mom’s smartphone trying to do school work. It’s not going to work,” Mercer said.

Children is those settings are facing “major technology issues,” Mercer said. Parents may not be able to pay the cell phone bill and then the internet connection goes down.

If the children are living in a motel that doubles as a homeless shelter, there may be WiFi hot spots in the motel office – but they don’t work on a smartphone, she said.

Remote learning issues are particularly acute for those children, Mercer said.

Before COVID-19 became widespread, there were few children living in the motels that double as homeless shelters. But because of financial issues – business closures and layoffs – parents have lost their jobs and some families have moved into motels.

It is an issue that Mercer knows well. HomeFront, which was established more than two decades ago, grew out of the former Lawrence Township Exchange Club’s efforts to provide meals to the homeless families living in the motels.

“There are hundreds of children who are homeless or who are living in our housing or in the community. These are children who were living in our shelter but who have moved into permanent housing,” she said.

HomeFront manages housing scattered throughout Mercer County and places families who graduate from its programs into those homes. The programs help clients learn new skills and get back on their feet.

The bottom line is, families may not be ale to help their children with remote learning, Mercer said.

For children who come from unstable home situations, school is an anchor for them and they miss it, she said. School is a source of comfort and routine for them. And because they qualify for free or reduced lunch, it also means at least one meal a day for them.

The end result for children who are unable to go to school five days per week, as they did before Gov. Phil Murphy issued the stay-at-home order in March, means they will fall further and further behind academically. The opportunity gap becomes bigger and bigger, she said.

But HomeFront is trying to close the gap.

Since the schools were closed to students for in-person learning, HomeFront tutors have helped the children with their homework through Zoom video conferencing. HomeFront also has held socially distanced movie nights and bingo nights, and organized magic shows to provide some sense of normalcy.

During the summer, HomeFront has set up pop-up camps at the motels. HomeFront staff takes activities to the motels, where they play social distancing games and other activities with the children.

“We want to bring some human warmth to them,” Mercer said.