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For a learning pod of homeless students, school days unfold in a motel carport

By Laura Newberry, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — A dozen bleary-eyed children bundled in sweaters, jackets and knit caps trickle into the motel carport, taking seats at metal desks evenly spaced atop the gasoline-stained concrete. Diagrams of the alphabet and solar system are taped to the beige stucco wall.

"How are we feeling today?" a tutor asks two little boys as they take their seats. "Sleepy?"

The younger boy nods yes as he pulls a blue mask decorated with Dalmatians over his face. A 4-year-old wearing socks, flip-flops and a hot-pink Minnie Mouse coat bounds over to her desk and plops into her chair.

The school day is about to begin for these children, who amid the COVID-19 pandemic are sheltering with their families at the Hyland Motel in Van Nuys. Every Monday and Tuesday since mid-August, these homeless students — as few as five or as many as 12 — have congregated in the carport, where volunteers help them navigate hourslong Zoom classes.

They are just a fraction of the L.A. Unified School District's estimated 11,000 homeless students, who, according to data, are especially vulnerable to the pandemic's learning impacts: lower grades, attendance rates and online participation.

Coronavirus-forced school closures didn't just impact their education. It severed their daylong connection to food and shelter. LAUSD recently has ramped up efforts to reach more students, offering virtual healthcare and counseling and assigning staff to track down absent kids.


"Quite a few of our students hadn't been logging into school at all until they came to our pod," said Emma Gerch, a coordinator with School on Wheels, the nonprofit that has provided volunteer tutors. "If those students are able to log on and pay attention, that's a win."

At the Hyland, they take a page from more affluent district parents, who have pooled resources to hire teachers or tutors and set up well-equipped backyard classrooms to accommodate the challenges of distance learning.

The effort is part of a city-funded $770,000 pilot program called Kids First, dreamed up by City Councilwoman Nury Martinez and launched in August to help homeless families and children secure healthcare, tutoring and permanent housing.

"Once COVID hit in March, we knew the situation for these families just got so much worse," Martinez said.


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