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Survey offers snapshot of Boston Public Schools families struggling to cope with crisis

Overwhelmed parents say they need more academic and financial support

School buses have been idle since Boston schools were closed eight weeks ago.
School buses have been idle since Boston schools were closed eight weeks ago.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston families are foundering as they try to navigate remote learning while beset by financial hardship, housing insecurity, and mental health issues, according to a survey by the Boston Public Schools.

The survey, of more than 24,000 families, provides a snapshot of a district in crisis, where more than one out of every three families say they need greater academic support for students’ online learning.

In addition, nearly a quarter need extra financial support, and one out of every five has experienced housing insecurity.

“The COVID-19 crisis has magnified the inequities that persist in our community,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said in a statement to the Globe. She said school officials will continue "to assist and reassure our families that we’re all in this together and that we will continue to do everything in our power to support and care for them.”

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The district distributed the survey to better assess the needs of families as they grapple with the unprecedented crisis brought on by the pandemic, which has upended American life, shuttering schools and forcing parents into the difficult balancing act of educating their children while trying to earn a living.

The survey, available in 10 languages, suggests that some BPS measures are making a difference. For instance, in the eight weeks since Boston schools stopped holding in-person classes, the district has distributed more than 31,000 Chromebooks to students. It has also delivered 2,600 Wi-Fi hot spots to families in need. In the survey, just 5 percent of respondents said they had a need for better Internet access.

But much work remains to be done: The survey indicates that, as of last week, 14 percent of Boston families had experienced food insecurity, even though BPS has turned school buildings into emergency food sites, supplying nearly half a million meals since the crisis began. Now, under a new program, parents of Boston’s 50,000 or so public school students will receive benefits equal to about $400 per child to help pay for meals on days when schools were closed due to the pandemic.

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But by far the biggest need families identified is greater academic support while students learn at home. Thirty-six percent of respondents said they needed more help from the schools as they took on an unfamiliar role as home-schooling parents, often while trying to work from home or care for other children.

The district has directed schools to provide, on average, three hours a day of teacher-guided learning, and it has instructed staff to have one-on-one check-ins with students every three days. But that’s far less attention than many students received when they were actually going to school.

Siobhan Mahon, whose son is in the sixth grade at the Ohrenberger School, said he’s having a hard time staying motivated and is logging about two hours of classes a day.

“There are too many distractions, and then I’m working from home myself,” she said. “I don’t know how they could make it any easier . . . Unless they want to come by the house and say, ‘Get your stuff done; your teacher’s outside.’ ”

With about a quarter of the state’s workers unemployed, it’s perhaps unsurprising that 24 percent of Boston families report needing financial support. Nearly as many report housing insecurity, a testament to how the current public health crisis, coupled with the city’s high cost of living, have left many unable to pay the rent or the mortgage, leaving them at risk of homelessness.

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"There were a lot of families living close to the edge before the pandemic hit,” said Robert Triest, chair of the economics department at Northeastern University. “The cost of living is so high in Boston that it doesn’t take much of a shock to initiate housing insecurity.”

School officials say they’ve been heavily involved in housing issues, too, noting that the Homeless Education Resource Network has helped refer 400 families to the Boston Housing Authority for housing vouchers.

On the other hand, just 4 percent of respondents said they needed health care, and with so many people out of work or working from home, only 3 percent said they needed child care.

A district spokesperson said the central office is sharing respondent information with individual schools to contact families who filled out the survey to try to connect them with necessary services.

"The survey gave us important information that we are using to provide families with access to food, adequate technology, Internet connectivity, housing supports and more,” Cassellius said. “It’s more important than ever to make sure all of our students and their families are safe, healthy, and supported.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay