Mary Elizabeth Rauktis photographed outside the Cathedral of Learning. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/Rtvsrece)
Mary Elizabeth Rauktis photographed outside the Cathedral of Learning. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/Rtvsrece)
Compelling personal stories told by the people living them.

Most children have experienced losses during the pandemic. Chief among them has been learning loss. But for the 1,500 foster youth in Allegheny County and up to 25,000 in Pennsylvania, it’s likely weighted differently.

One foster parent summed it up when she said, “Education is not their first worry; these kids have seen a lot of life.”

They were unable to see their parents (except remotely) or their siblings. Adoptions were delayed because the courts and child welfare were operating at a lower capacity. Opportunities to be with extended kin vanished. All foster youth live in an in-between state — in between their birth and foster or kin parents, in between homes — but this was heightened by the pandemic.

As a social work researcher, I study families and children, particularly those in foster care, kinship care (with relatives or close family friends) and residential care.

Foster parents have been reporting increased anxiety and anger-related behavior at a time when in-school therapies were canceled and therapy time was limited or non-existent.

As one social worker observed, though: “They have lost more than a normal person in a year.” Everything in their lives was impacted — not just education.

In late December, watching the rising cases attributed to the omicron variant of COVID-19, I feared that we would see a repeat of spring 2020. My concern was specific to youth in foster care and schools. If schools went remote again to contain the spread of COVID, would the educational gains they were making stall? What would happen to social and emotional services offered in schools to these children? Could foster and kinship families continue to manage parenting and education if schools closed again and social and emotional services were limited?

Foster care impacts a modest number of young people, but the consequences are serious.

The question for me was how much greater the gap between foster youth and their peers could become because of the ongoing educational pandemic-related school changes, and what it could mean for their future.

Disruptions are ongoing with unpredictable school closures in the city schools and some other area districts, but the answers to my questions will reveal themselves over time.

Why do we see a persistent educational gap between youth in foster care and their peers? Youth who come into foster or kinship care are often behind in reading and math. A review of research studies found that a third or more of children in care performed in the “low to average” or “low” range educationally. This gap is due to multiple factors such as undiagnosed learning disabilities or emotional and neurological consequences from experiencing trauma.

Parents who are struggling with an addiction or experiencing violence are unable to focus on educational progress. Older youth may be needed to take care of preschool siblings and so they cannot attend school. Exposure to traumatic events impacts brain development, which can impact learning. Changing foster homes leads to disruptions as children move between schools.

I interviewed 12 staff and teachers, six foster parents and 10 kinship parents about the educational and mental health challenges for foster children throughout 2020 and 2021 for a study I conducted as research associate faculty with the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh. More than 75 kinship foster parents, primarily grandparents, also completed an online survey about parenting during the pandemic, and a similar survey is being deployed next month for foster parents. Both studies are funded by the University of Pittsburgh Momentum Funds, designed to support important community research in areas where there is limited start-up research funding.

One foster parent interviewed observed that when children enter her home, she knows “they start off on the back burner in terms of education.” This continues into young adulthood. Compared to peers, youth in foster care fare poorly as a group in many areas including educational attainment, high school graduation and post-secondary education, according to what’s known as the Midwest Study, a longitudinal study that followed a group of people as they transitioned out of foster care into adulthood. Because educational success is linked to economic success, future earnings are negatively impacted.

The number of Allegheny County children in out-of-home placement has steadily decreased from the highest number of 3,000 in 1996. In 2018, about 1,500 were living in out-of-home placements, more than half in a kinship home.

According to an Allegheny County Education Research brief on students in foster care, more than 1,200 students in the county’s public schools are in foster care. Pittsburgh Public Schools has the largest number of students in foster care at 360 — twice the countywide rate of students in foster care, according to the brief. Wilkinsburg, Sto-Rox, McKeesport and Duquesne school districts each have about three times the countywide rate of students in foster care.

“Even within districts, enrollment varies considerably, concentrating this vulnerable group in schools with lower attendance rates, more economically disadvantaged students, and worse academic achievement,” the brief’s authors wrote.

Evidence from other epidemics, natural disasters and school strikes is that learning losses occur for most children. A 2017 study on the consequences of closing schools during the 1916 polio epidemic found differential effects on educational attainment. Young people old enough to work and living in areas affected by the pandemic had lower educational attainment compared to similarly aged youth living in areas with lower morbidity from polio. This was not seen for younger children unable legally to obtain work. Thus dropping out of school during the pandemic negatively impacted educational achievement and potential lifetime earnings.

Mary Elizabeth Rauktis studies families and children, particularly those in foster care, kinship care and residential care. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/Rtvsrece)

We have seen similar patterns in the COVID pandemic with older youth as they were more likely to not be engaged in online education and drop out of school. The Los Angeles School District did a comprehensive snapshot in spring 2020 to determine whether students were engaging in remote education. Foster children were found to be less likely to engage with remote instructions.

In my study, I confirmed this finding was also true for many foster youth in the Pittsburgh area. “Remote wasn’t great for special needs kids,” one foster parent observed. While this seems intuitive because remote learning is challenging for most kids, those who have experienced traumatic events and were removed from their homes need the mental health supports provided in schools, consistent educational routines and socialization of peers and interaction with caring adults.

The initial state response was to allow parents (which for foster children usually means birth parents) to request that the child be retained in grade. However, foster parents and staff that I spoke to were opposed to this strategy or felt that birth parents would not agree to retention. Birth parents believed that a child’s grade retention would be “held against them” in their efforts to reunify, and foster parents felt that retention was “punishing” and stigmatizing to the child.

“It’s not her fault,” said one foster parent when I questioned if she was comfortable with the child moving to the next grade not having mastered the material. Many Black families do not view the educational system as benevolent, and retention meant another year in an inhospitable system.

Summer school was not positively viewed by foster parents, but after-school tutoring was deemed to be non-stigmatizing. Evidence has shown it is possible to close the learning gap with intensive tutoring.

All students have experienced loss in the last two years, so what can we do about it? Most teachers are not educated on working with trauma and may know little about behaviors that are common for children who have experienced it. There is a case to be made that now more than ever all teachers should be trained in trauma-sensitive approaches.

Finally, educational strategies to avoid are zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, which punish in ways that only lower engagement and discourage learning for all students, not just those in foster care.

As an educator, I teach aspiring students how to engage with and build on the resilience of children and their caregivers. As a mentor, I have advised former foster care youth who have later become colleagues and friends. I have witnessed how challenging it is to go to college not as well prepared as peers, with far less familial support and the price that is paid emotionally and educationally.

The sense that this pandemic may be placing this group even further behind makes me feel somewhat helpless and very concerned for their future. They cannot be forgotten in the broader conversation about learning loss.

Mary Elizabeth Rauktis is a licensed social worker and research associate faculty in the School of Social Work at The University of Pittsburgh. If you want to send her a message, email firstperson@rtvsrece.com.

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