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Study Shows Dallas County Students Face Food Insecurity, Online Learning Barriers During COVID-19

Boys wearing masks getting free lunches from school bus.
LM Otero
Associated Press
Brothers Brian, left, and David Rayo wear masks as they pick up school lunches for themselves and other siblings at their apartment complex in Dallas.

As the economic impact of COVID-19 continues to batter North Texas, new research shows lower-income kids in Dallas County face growing food insecurity and a lack of access to online learning tools during school closures. 

“COVID-19 has burdened Texas families in so many ways,” Dr. Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of the non-profit Children at Risk, said. “From school closures to lost jobs, and now limited or no access to food, our children are suffering tremendously, and many may never get back to normal.”

An April study from the nonprofit found that the number of North Texas children who do not have access to adequate food is set to increase. In Dallas County, 25% of kids were already food insecure before COVID-19. Rising unemployment and lack of access to school meal programs means kids are now receiving one to two less meals a day. 

The organization identified 10 zip codes where families and kids have difficulty accessing adequate meals: 75203, 75211, 75116, 75237, 75216, 75210, 75141, 75172, 75126, and 75159. The findings were based on U.S. census data and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index

Credit Children At Risk
Children At Risk
The study identified 10 Dallas County zipcodes that are high-risk in terms of food insecurity.

According to the study, contributing factors in these neighborhoods include a lack of transportation, disabilities, lack of time and resources in single-parent households, language and literacy barriers and fears of repercussion due to immigrant status. 

“The people bearing the biggest brunt of this are low-income families,” Sanborn said. “That's immigrant families, families of color, those are families that are now losing their jobs.”

He said food insecurity and online learning often go hand-in-hand: when kids are hungry, learning is not their top priority.

“Right now a lot of kids just aren’t motivated to learn from home right now,” he said. “You add hunger on top of that and we’re going to see significantly less academic success.” 

Sanborn hopes the state will step up by implementing pandemic SNAP, food relief or food stamp programs, to help provide students with nutritious food while schools are closed. He said Texas has yet to take advantage of the program. 

“We’re hoping that the governor pushes this request a little bit more,” he said. “This would be a great relief for a lot of these families that are suffering from food insecurity.” 

Other significant barriers exist when it comes to online learning. Across North Texas school districts, many students don’t have access to technology and high-speed internet. 

Some districts are trying to find solutions like providing hot spots through school buses, delivering hard copy materials and partnering with television stations to deliver educational programs. Still, students with a lack of resources are falling behind. 

Maps from Children At Risk show the Dallas County zip codes where students face a lack of access to online learning, low-performing schools and higher concentrations of child poverty: 75203, 75211, 75215, 75216, 75217, 75227, 75232, 75237 and 75241. 

Credit Children At Risk
Children At Risk
In Dallas County, students in nine zipcodes were identified as having barriers to online learning.

Sanborn said access to technology is one of the first barriers to online learning, but helping parents navigate technology is another issue that needs to be improved. As the possibility of returning to school in the fall is up in the air, Sanborn said schools will need to offer even more guidance to families in the coming months. 

“School districts are going to have to do a much better job of hand-holding parents, hand-holding students and getting them to use technology,” he said. “And if they’re not using technology, making sure students are still engaged.”

Sanborn said schools will have to face the hard reality that things will not return to normal for the foreseeable future. That means they’ll need to start strategizing about how to maximize instructional time.

“We’re going to see pandemic loss,” he said. “In terms of kids are going to be significantly far behind so schools have to begin thinking when kids are in the classroom, what are we doing to catch them up?” 

Overall, Sanborn hopes the geographical focus of the study encourages local leaders to take action in assisting families and children in these vulnerable neighborhoods. One way to do that? The study suggests the state ensure all districts are tracking and reporting students who are being left out. 

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.