Pulitzer Center Update

Reporting on Disparities Across Vulnerable Communities During COVID-19

COVID-19 has further highlighted deep disparities within American society, impacting homeless populations, communities of color, and rural areas at disproportionate rates.

On Tuesday, July 21, 2020, the Pulitzer Center’s Talks @ Pulitzer Focus on Justice Series continued with a session highlighting how broken education and social service programs have worsened since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In this webinar, Pulitzer Center grantees Claire Napier Galofaro, Aisha Sultan, and Eric Adelson discuss their reporting projects, each of which focuses on vulnerable communities amidst the pandemic.

Discussing her Pulitzer Center-supported article “‘It’s Gone Haywire’: When COVID-19 Arrived in Rural America,” which examined the impact of COVID-19 on Dawson, Georgia, Galofaro recalled how an emergency room doctor told her that after the pandemic the “responsibility will be to reflect on how this happened, how this place became so vulnerable, [and] how all of these predictable, known problems created this perfect constellation of inequalities that made these people die so quickly from coronavirus.”

Sultan detailed the pandemic’s effects on St. Louis’s 63106 zip code, an underserved neighborhood suffering from high rates of unemployment and poverty. Her Pulitzer Center-supported reporting follows a single mother Tyra in and deals with homeschooling in a city where children “have been killed at 10 times the national rate for decades.”

Adelson introduced viewers to his Pulitzer Center-supported project “The Hidden Homeless,” which reports on how homeless youth are left especially at risk from the closure of schools. From 2011 to 2016, the student homeless population rose to nearly 1.3 million in the U.S.

“When you report on the stories that Claire, Aisha, and I have reported on, you realize that social distancing is a privilege. It's something that the rest of us can do by choice, but a lot of people don't have the choice to social distance,” he reflected.

The following is an edited transcript of the webinar, featuring excerpts from the audience Question & Answer segment moderated by Pulitzer Center Contributing Editor Kem Knapp Sawyer. Portions of this text have been revised for clarity and/or length.

Kem Knapp Sawyer: We have a question from Ann Oldenburg for all of you. How are all of you physically reporting these stories? Are you going out into the community and physically talking to people?

Claire Napier Galofaro: It's something I've spent a lot of time, as a journalist, thinking through. It is a very careful calculation of risk and work. What value can we get in the field that we could not get over the phone? For this particular story, we did go and meet people in person. We were obviously very careful about social distancing and wearing the appropriate masks and other PPE for whatever situation we were walking into, and being very clear with the people we were interviewing about what their comfort level was, what sort of place they felt comfortable in. 

So, we have been reporting in the fields for big, important stories that need to be told and that you need to look at someone's face. It's important for our readers to be able to look into their eyes to understand what this journey is like for them, but it is a very, very careful calculation of how we do that. Of course our worst fear is to go into a marginalized community and make things worse.

That has been the gut-wrenching, emotional part of this for me–what my responsibility is to keep myself safe so that I would never be in a situation to put people who are willing to tell their story, because they think it's important, at any kind of heightened risk just because I showed up. So I think that that is a really complicated calculation that I'm sure all newsrooms across America are making right now and it is a hard one. It's not easy. I think that it's something that we as an industry are going to be facing for a really long time as this virus continues to spread and continues to surge. 

Eric Adelson: I agree with Claire, everything she said. You have to look someone in the eye. I mean, when I speak about anguish and fatigue, that's not visible on the phone. Family Promise is the name of the center that's helping this homeless family [in Jacksonville, Florida]. We met there, social distanced and then some. I was across the room, I put my recorder halfway between myself and them, and then I just asked them to speak up so my recorder got it and then I was able to speak up. Then I took some pictures at a distance. 

But just like what Claire said, you don't want to add to the problem. I remember getting back into the car and I was certainly nervous cause I wanted to drive back here and meet with you guys, but there's some relief to drive away because you're no longer posing any threat and you're no longer in that situation. That concern, that sort of unspoken fear, is with them all the time. There is no hideaway from that. There is no respite from that. [Homeless individuals] are around strangers all the time.

Of course, when you and I go out shopping, everyone kind of knows the situation. But if you're in a homeless area, how much does the other person know, how much does the other person respect the rules, how much does the other person avoid spreading something? So again, as nervous as we all are as a society, I think that the concern and fear is much higher. I think it helps me as a journalist to feel that even more than I do in my normal life.

Aisha Sultan: I will say one thing, that it has been really helpful to be able to FaceTime. I agree, nonverbal communication says so much, not just in building trust with people who you're interviewing, but also for you as a witness. As a reporter, you need to be able to see certain things. I've asked Tyra to take me on a tour of the house on FaceTime. I've talked to her kids over FaceTime. I've seen different places that she's lived. Because I can text her first, I can say, "hey, is this a good time?" Or "what are you doing right now?" And we can be in touch throughout the day. What ends up developing is a relationship that feels more intimate than me just showing up and then going away and then showing back up. 

There develops this comfort level. Tyra texted me when she thought she was in labor to just tell me what she was feeling and where she was going through and what she was planning on doing. Then she texted me when she was in the hospital and I was on FaceTime and I got to see the baby after it was born. I feel like had I tried to show up there, and also because I'm still working full-time on other stuff, I wouldn't be able to just drop everything and drive 40, 30 minutes from where I am to be there in those moments. The fact that we have built a relationship where she can just get me onto the phone and show me what's happening in her life right then is also really valuable. 

KS: This is a question from Stephanie Zero, and it's also for all of you. How do the students experiencing homelessness, low-income families, and the students in rural areas find access to the internet to be able to participate in school? What impact will this educational disparity have on the students?

CG: That was not a focus of our reporting on this particular story, but I do know that access to broadband is an incredible challenge for students. I live in Kentucky and I have reported a lot on Appalachia, and that is an incredible problem for Appalachian students just because of the landscape. It is hard sometimes for people to have access to the internet in their houses. I've heard stories of people going to the truckstop and doing their schoolwork in the parking lot. It is a true and real problem facing students, particularly at this time.

AS: I will comment really quickly on what I've seen out of Missouri. The latest report that I saw from the state Department of Education was that about 22 percent of students did not have access to the internet in our state. That kind of aligns with the number of kids who are homeless or in high poverty situations. Actually, children who qualify for free and reduced lunch are actually much higher than that percentage. 

So, school districts have made a huge effort to take a survey at spring break and now, before school starts, to find out, do you have access to devices? How many devices are in the house? Do you have access to internet? The [students] who don't, they are providing Chromebooks or devices for children. Also they're providing Wi-Fi hotspots that families can use to be able to access the Internet.

I was just thinking this morning, we have two teenagers and two adults in [our] house. When we are all going to be on our personal home system at the same time, I don't know what the speed will be like, I don't know how often the system will crash. Imagine if you're in a family where you're on a personal hotspot and three kids are trying to get on, or a parent is also trying to supervise. It is a real challenge.

The other thing that [the districts] found is that after spring break, when most schools did not go back to in-person sessions, many districts were not very strict on grading. They said either your grade could only drop a certain percentage if you didn't do the work, or you wouldn't drop lower. There was a certain percentage of students that just never logged in. And that's one thing that I want to look at district by district and across the state: what percentage of students just never logged in, not even once, even those kids who had access. Because they knew there weren't really stakes attached to it. 

So then there's three months of learning, in addition to the summer decline, that are just gone. And then when you compound that on the entire fall semester, you're looking at close to a year loss. Students after Katrina, who experienced homelessness and missed school because of that hurricane and displacement, it took two years, from what I've read recently, to recover that academic learning that was lost. We are past that point of how much time was left out of school for those children that were displaced. This is not going to be a quick fix with summer school and trying to make things up. It's going to be a years-long project to close the gap and even to bring students back up to where they ought to be. 

EA: I think one of the big takeaways I'll have from this whole era is how abysmal the leadership has been in this country compared to how inspiring some of the ingenuity has been in this country, facing the same situation. There's a community college that has something called a learning lot, where they turn on the Wi-Fi in a building and then students can drive up and just sit in the car and take advantage of the Wi-Fi in a parking lot. That's a learning lot. It's depressing to think that that's your learning situation, but on the other hand, I really feel like more communities should be building outdoor learning facilities. That's what we did a hundred and some years ago in the flu pandemic. A lot of students went outside and it was safer out there.

So I'm not sure, maybe other people know why this isn't happening more often here. We have the ability to build outdoor learning centers, at least temporary ones. But that's the debate. How do you stay outside and still get shelter and still get learning? If you're in a situation like the family that I talked to–very similar to Aisha's family, a single mom and two kids–even if you have Wi-Fi, it's not like you can call the IT guy in the shelter. Even if her Wi-Fi works, you're sitting right next to each other in a room and you have to talk and listen, and your brother, your sibling is next to you doing the same thing. That's not easy for learning either. 

I must give a lot of credit to schools that have really tried to front-run the IT need. In some cases, putting the technology in their own cars and delivering it to a shelter or a bus stop or a house or a hotel. The teachers and administrative staff have been amazing nationwide and literally talking to each other on webinars weekly. "How about this idea? How about this idea? Can we do this? Have you tried this? Have you tried Facebook?"

But then there's all sorts of barriers that you don't expect. If you're doing the learning lot, how do you get there if you don't have a car? If you're going to a bus stop, well, people don't want to go on the bus. They don't feel like it's safe to go to a bus stop. You want to reach out to a student on Facebook to see how they're doing, but then that gives away that they're homeless and that's not something you're supposed to do because of privacy laws. So for every bright idea, there's a dim reality that shadows the chances of getting through to the students and really helping them.

While our panelists were unable to answer every audience question during the Q&A, we have provided some additional comments and resources from them below regarding steps that both the government and individuals can take to fight disparities in communities. Also included is a response from Galofaro about a question regarding the intersection of COVID-19 and the opioid crisis:

  • Adelson notes that there is currently no government subsidy for diapers, a huge blow to families falling into povery during the COVID-19 crisis. He states how "any help with diapers from legislators serves as a de facto tax break for people who desperately need it." For attendees who wish to help, he urges them to check out the National Diaper Bank Network's webiste to find out how to donate locally.
  • Sultan says that a major way to address some of the health disparities discussed would be to expand Medicaid, a step Missouri has yet to take. "It's unfathomable that in a global pandemic that has killed 140,000 people in America, 27.5 million people here lack health insurance," she writes.
  • Galofaro states that she is now "reporting now on a story about how COVID is impacting the opioid epidemic. There is a delay in national reporting on overdose deaths, so the true toll of it will not be known for many months. But some individual coroners across the county are reporting sharp increases in overdose deaths. Many who work in drug treatment and public health worry that this is a trend that will continue and could get dramatically worse because of the isolation and economic insecurity coronavirus is creating." To read a report estimating that "the pandemic could lead to an additional 75,000 deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide, the so-called 'deaths of despair,'” click here