FORT WORTH — With their two young children in tow, Andre Cameron and Tie Hernandez sought a room at the Budget Suites of America in late March. On a form asking how long they planned to stay, they answered "four to six months."
They put down a $200 deposit for a one-bedroom in the middle of a life-changing pandemic, having no idea whether that estimate was accurate.
Paetun Beavers, who is 11, and Kingstun Beavers, who is 9, sleep on a couch in the living room and pile their blankets up in the morning. The family pays the hotel $8 a week for sluggish internet so the children can complete homework assignments for Comanche Springs School in Eagle Mountain-Saginaw Independent School District — to the perpetual soundtrack of Fort Worth’s busy Interstate 820.
Officials with the small school district in the northwest corner of Tarrant County estimate that dozens of their students — like hundreds in other districts — live with their families long term in this hotel, so many that when the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools, it set up a regular service handing out free meals and books in the hotel parking lot. Otherwise, students faced crossing two highways to reach the school for breakfast or lunch, according to Ally Surface, a parent volunteer who distributes meals weekly.
Cameron and Hernandez found themselves out of work when the pandemic hit and unable to immediately apply for financial help through a backlogged unemployment system — bringing them to the extended-stay hotel. Regular food distribution is one of few tenuous threads connecting students like Paetun and Kingstun to their schools, especially as pandemic-spurred economic shutdowns hit low-income Texans and Texans of color hardest.
“It’s a whole new hardship for me not to be able to go back to work,” said Hernandez, the children’s mother, who is on furlough from her sales job. “It’s been something totally new that I never had to experience before.”
Students who live in hotels, often because their parents were evicted or can’t pass rental company credit checks, are considered homeless by federal law and are among the most challenging for schools to keep track of during typical times. Parents fall behind on rent and are forced to find cheaper housing somewhere else, shuffling their children from school to school. An estimated 114,055 Texas students were considered homeless in 2018-19, state data shows, and 7% of those students lived in hotels or motels.
Now that the pandemic has shut down all school buildings, Texas public schools have reported losing contact with thousands of students, who could go months without receiving any education. The state has left the challenge of finding those students to local school districts, advising them to meticulously document the number of students who are rarely or never in communication with their teachers and arrange home visits to ensure students are safe.
“Families who are currently residing in hotels/motels are more at-risk for high mobility due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the state says in guidance on how schools should support homeless students.
Educators know some of their students won’t come back at all when schools reopen and expect the number of homeless students to rise as the pandemic continues, especially since the state removed a ban on eviction proceedings last week. The exceptional burdens facing families who were already hurting is one reason the state is preparing for widespread academic setbacks in the fall, far worse than the typical summer slide.
The frontage road signs capture why families end up in hotels like the Fort Worth's Budget Suites of America: “No credit check,” “no lease,” “free utilities,” “full size kitchens.” They’re a good option for people who have been evicted or don’t have the money for a hefty deposit.
A hotel can be a hard home for a child. Budget Suites of America prohibits children from playing in the common areas, including the grass and sidewalks, without parental supervision, according to parents. About a month ago, Paetun and Kingstun were playing football together in the grass. “We had a note posted to our door that said if that happened again we would have to pay a $25 fee,” Hernandez said.
Managers for Budget Suites of America in Fort Worth did not respond to repeated requests for comment last week.
The family does the best it can to make space for the children to do schoolwork in the cramped one-bedroom apartment. “It’s not much room, not much of anything, really,” said Cameron, the children’s stepfather. “We are trying to move to a two-bedroom, and that’s $400 a week.” Over the past couple of months, they’ve talked to other residents who have received notices to vacate the premises after falling behind on their rent.
Paetun and Kingstun have struggled to stay motivated on their schoolwork, with Paetun falling far behind and Kingstun breezing through too-easy assignments. They share a computer the school gave them, as well as a tablet and cellphones, but the internet service is spotty. Their teachers use a lot of platforms to assign them material, which has been confusing for both children and parents. And neither child gets substantial instruction from teachers, like they would in a classroom.
“Sometimes I have to watch a video and write what I learned,” Kingstun said. “But the video doesn’t explain much. In class, usually the teacher would explain more.” The 9-year-old, a fast learner, misses checking books out from the library that would help him deepen his understanding.
And their mom and stepdad are no substitute. “We have our parents, but the curriculum has changed so much that sometimes they don’t know how to do something,” Paetun said.
“I can’t sit down and do fourth grade math anymore. It’s hard!” Hernandez replied, laughing.
The quality of remote instruction varies widely, even within individual schools, depending on what teachers are able to offer and what districts mandate. Wealthier students have an advantage, with multiple devices and regular Wi-Fi at home and less stress about where they will get their next meal.
Cameron and Hernandez wouldn’t have been able to pay their bills without the federal stimulus checks they received. And Hernandez finally started receiving unemployment benefits after five weeks of trying and failing to get through to the agency. They don’t always need the free meals the district offers in the parking lot, but their availability removes some of the financial pressure.
One day in April, Surface, a parent volunteer, showed up to deliver those meals and was confused when she saw just 85 students trickling down from their apartments with their parents, far fewer than the up to 900 she had expected from districts across the region.
“A dad came up and said, ‘Did you hear that last night they evicted 75 residents and a lot of them had kids?’” recalled Surface, who runs the district's education foundation. He pointed around at the dozens of windows in the surrounding hotel buildings. The blinds gaping open, he said, means someone was evicted.
Surface immediately knew something was wrong. She remembered reading that the Texas Supreme Court had temporarily halted eviction proceedings starting in mid-March. (It allowed them to resume May 18.) Landlords could still send notices to vacate to renters who had missed payments and file evictions at court, but court hearings and eviction procedures were halted. Although the notice doesn’t require people to immediately move, a lot of people prefer to leave the premises on their own, avoiding going to court and preventing a mark on their credit scores.
And Surface soon found out that the eviction moratorium didn't necessarily help families living in hotels. According to lawyers, residents in extended-stay hotels stood in a legal gray area while eviction proceedings were stalled, sometimes protected by that policy and sometimes not, depending on several factors, including how long they had been there and the frequency of their payments.
Surface told Superintendent Jim Chadwell, who sent an email to local lawmakers and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, urging them to protect families who were losing their jobs and unable to pay their monthly rent. Some reached out to the hotel or asked other districts for possible solutions, but Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD was largely on its own, Surface said.
“Those tenants are stuck in no man’s land, basically,” said state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, who spent some time looking into the resources available to help families understand their rights. They are often “kicked out or locked out on a whim by the managers of those hotels.”
“What our question was: Are they treating residents like this because they’re at a motel or hotel and it’s seen as a night of rental?” Surface said. “Some of these families have lived there for a year or longer. To me, that is a renter.”
As the uncertain economic forecast keeps families in temporary housing, schools may have to step up their support for these types of renters, if they can find them during the crisis. As the school year winds down, Texas is allowing school districts to hold in-person summer school and prioritize vulnerable students, including those who are homeless or struggling academically. But they can't require students to show up in person and are encouraged to provide a virtual alternative.
Many districts are working on strengthening their virtual education programs in case the closures stretch through the fall. And that means extra work to help students living in hotels.
When schools first shut down in March, Arlington ISD officials reached out to local hotels asking them to offer free internet access to students, which was a struggle. “They’re businesses, and I understand they’re businesses,” said Tori Sisk, a homeless student liaison for the district. “At one point, we were able to just engage them. They were seeing on the news … [that] we were able to give our kids in Arlington ISD devices, and they couldn’t afford to utilize the device.”
Nearing the end of the school year, Sisk and her team don’t have a clear picture of how many students are living in those hotels. “It could take some time before we are able to get a solid number,” she said.
The disparity between wealthier and poorer students will likely only be worsened by the state ending its temporary ban on eviction proceedings in late May. Educators are expecting to see more students become effectively homeless, moving in with other family members, staying in hotels or living in shelters. And once the school year ends, schools will struggle even more to reach them.
Shawn Sheehan, an algebra teacher at Lewisville High School in Lewisville ISD, teaches a handful of students who have been living in extended-stay hotels or other types of temporary housing. He lost touch with one student for two weeks and then found him again after the student and his father moved to a different hotel. “He was apologizing for not being connected,” Sheehan said. “It’s such a wild thing to have kids apologize for not being connected when they’re experiencing such a significant challenge in housing.”
When students were sitting in chairs in front of him, Sheehan could casually ask them what was going on in their lives and help them brainstorm solutions. “Absent that, it’s hard. That’s where the biggest challenges will be,” he said. “Assuming they do return to the physical campus.”
The pandemic has forced educators to deal with inequities among students head on instead of tiptoeing around them, Sheehan said. “We can’t be dismissive of students not having internet access and say, ‘They could come to school earlier.’ Now you have to say, ‘No, they need to have access at home as well.’”
In the parking lot of Budget Suites of America, volunteers in masks will continue handing out meals, as well as donated books, to children through the summer. A never-ending flow of cars and trucks race down 820, making it hard to hear people speak. "I feel like our numbers could grow because every week it just feels like a different group of kids come in, so you know it's just a revolving door there," Surface said.
Cameron and Hernandez will continue seeking out the extra help while it is available. Cameron left his job at Pizza Hut when schools closed to take care of Paetun and Kingstun. It took Hernandez five weeks to start receiving unemployment benefits after being furloughed as a sales specialist for a candy distribution company. By that point, she had missed so many payments that she had lost her car.
Last week, the first week eviction proceedings were allowed to restart, Hernandez walked outside and saw five moving trucks taking people to and from the hotel. “People are moving in and out,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
The family wants to move into a regular apartment before the school year begins again this fall, but that may be a fantasy if another wave of the pandemic takes down Texas businesses. It often feels like they’re underwater.
“If we were to try and continue what we have been doing, I don’t think we would go very far,” Hernandez said.