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‘Everything they knew is gone’: Distance learning in a homeless shelter

Target 12

MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — The cinder block walls of the Middletown shelter kept the weather out, but also blocked a vital part of education changes forced by COVID-19.

That spotty internet signal was only problem number one for Monica Blackson and her two sons as they tackled distance learning without the basics many students take for granted.

Blackson credited her school district with “stepping up” to solve her computer and internet issues, but there were more challenges.

“It’s also hard being in one room,” Blackson said. “I can’t send one of them anywhere quiet when it’s one room.”

Further complicating everything: Blackson’s 8-year old has autism, and her 11-year-old, Asperger syndrome.

“What was difficult before is now compounded,” Blackson said. “Everything they knew is gone.”

Blackson had worked in the jewelry industry for about 20 years but an injury at her apartment last January forced her to take some time off to recover.

As Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) ran out, she lost that job and her apartment. By June, she was looking for one of the state’s few temporary housing units for homeless families.

“Never say never,” Blackson said. “I know I learned that from this. I never expected to need this sort of help.”

Blackson found a new job, but when COVID-19 stalled raw material imports, she was laid off again.

“It was very frustrating,” Blackson said. “To get knocked down. The struggle. But you learn more from your struggles than your successes.”

The Blacksons are one of some 60 families with about 100 children who are currently living in local shelters, according to the R.I. Coalition for the Homeless.

Kristina Contreras Fox, the group’s senior policy analyst, said an additional 40 families with an undetermined number of children are on a waiting list for temporary housing.

“Monica’s story is more common than you think. People end up needing help, and it’s not their fault,” Contreras Fox said. “No matter how hard you try, it is so easy to get knocked back down again. And those are policies we need to work on.”

Blackson got another job in April and is hopeful her family will be out of the shelter soon.

“When you show determination to keep moving, things will happen,” Blackson said. “I do feel very optimistic. I know we’re almost there.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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