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Illinois Youth In Foster Care Face Significant Barriers To Education During COVID

Spencer Tritt

As students begin returning in-person, one of the biggest challenges they face beyond academics is COVID-19 trauma. Yasmina Sefiane is used to talking about the significant impact trauma can take on students and their learning. She’s the program director at the NIU Center for Child Welfare & Education.

She also helps run the Educational Access Project. They have advisors across every corner of Illinois helping break down the barriers youth in foster care face to succeed in school.

Kids who grow up in foster care only graduate high school half of the time. That’s 35% lower than the national average. For students like them who may struggle, COVID-19 has made things even more challenging.

“I hope people understand many of our children have been exposed to trauma, and the impact it has on them, especially when they're in school and their learning,” she said. “Some of the things that they do are not behavioral issues, it's just from the trauma.”

The Project works with about 150 families every single month. Some of those families might need help with a dozen different issues.  Advisors help them with enrollment obstacles, fees, discipline, and school record transfers -- it’s common for youth in care to move up to 15 times through their education.

During the pandemic, those advisors have been helping a lot with other education issues related to remote learning. Sefiane said students have had trouble receiving special ed accommodations when they learn from home. They had a student who could only use WiFi by walking outside and sitting next to someone else’s house who had better internet.

They’ve also just been calling their families to make sure they’re okay and have food.

“The support that we've provided to families was more intense," she said. "I felt like sometimes we just had to carry on and work more with the family because we just didn't feel like we could let them go.” 

Loni Wilson is the foster care program manager at Children’s Home & Aid. They run youth service programs and early childhood education centers across Illinois.

“My role is to ensure our families are getting what they need in order to achieve reunification," she said. "Our end goal is always to keep our kids within in the community, and to then help support the families however we can.”

There are around 18,000 kids in the foster system in Illinois. Wilson said the state was one of several states to put policies in place to prevent youth in foster care from aging out of the system, which would have left them without support during the pandemic.

During COVID-19, Wilson's agency has had to rely even more on community partnerships like local food banks and YMCAs.

“We've also had some private donations from people," said Wilson, "who have allowed us to purchase tablets and WiFi hotspots.” 

The pandemic has caused delays in the court system for placements and adoptions. Illinois DCFS also launched a new recruitment tool in 2020 due to the need for more foster parents. Wilson said the foster system is focusing on relatives and friends of the family these days, but they still need foster parents, and the pandemic has caused many to shy away.

“There is this negative stigma of youth in care, especially older youth in care. And so, I think people are scared of it,” she said. “And I think the community needs to know that we have incredible kids who do need homes, and we also need support in other ways.”

She said they’re also understaffed and have seen a lot of burnout from caseworkers and caregivers.

“We have a situation where we have kids that are positive for COVID. The caregivers are positive, and both caregivers are now hospitalized,"said Wilson. "So, we had other caregivers step up to the plate, even though these youth are positive for COVID. We're really seeing the best in people as well.”

Yasmina Sefiane said early intervention education programs still can’t do home visits, but they’re finding creative online solutions to engage with foster kids. They’re also trying their best to keep students in their same school even if they’re moving houses.

Sefiane said the Educational Access Project has also been conducting trainings with school districts about trauma-informed education.

“I think all our caregivers need that kind of information," she said. "Even though you have an eight-year-old, it's not an eight-year-old that has grown up in your home, and that's had that foundation. A lot of things could have happened to this eight-year-old that the things this child is doing is not on purpose.”

Like so many students, youth in foster care have faced significant barriers to learning during the pandemic. But advocates say they can be glossed over in the conversationbecause they fall into other categories, like “low-income” or “English learners.”

But the two organizations, and others like them, say they’re there to make sure that, even if these kids are sometimes overlooked in those conversations, they’re not overlooked when it comes to trying to get them the services they need -- especially during the pandemic.