Valencia McQueen had her hands full Tuesday at Millennium Hotel in Durham.
Tevin, a busy 3-year-old who folks a generation ago would have described as “all boy,” was giving McQueen all that she could handle.
“They don’t have a playground, so he plays in the room, or we go into the hallway or come down to the lobby,” said McQueen, who spent the better part of an interview with Policy Watch chasing her cousin Tevin up and down the long, carpeted hallway just inside the hotel’s entrance.
McQueen, 18; her sister Hydeia, a junior at Hillside High School; their parents and Tevin moved to the hotel about three weeks ago. They were among the last of 280 families evacuated from the sprawling McDougald Terrace public housing community after carbon monoxide was discovered in some units in January.
The Durham Housing Authority moved affected families to local hotel. Many residents have been housed there for three months.
Dangerous levels of carbon monoxide were emitted by poorly installed appliances. Inspectors also found lead, mold and sewage problems in the units. Some units have been repaired, allowing residents to return home. But hundreds of residents remain in hotels and have been told the soonest they can return is early April.
Meanwhile, the McQueen sisters, their parents and Tevin have shared one room with two beds at the Millennium for three weeks. But it seems like a lifetime.
“It’s a little compact,” McQueen said. “We’re getting to know each other.”
Now, in addition to being forced from their homes, the McDougald Terrace families must deal with the threat of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. There were 134 reported cases in North Carolina late Thursday, including 35 cases in Durham County and 25 in Wake County. On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the first case of community spread, meaning the sick individual, who lives in Wilson County, had not traveled nor knowingly been in physical contact with an infected person.
Earlier this month, Gov. Cooper ordered schools to close for at least two weeks to slow the spread of the virus. Parents and other caregivers are struggling to provide children with healthy meals, exercise and education.
All are tough to do under the best circumstances. But imagine being cramped into a hotel without a kitchen, without a playground or computers.
“Someone just donated some arts supplies for the children to do some creative stuff during the time they’re out of school,” said Laura Betye, a McDougald Terrace resident also living at the Millennium.
Betye, a resident team leader at Millennium Hotel, said DHA is also working with Durham Public Schools to provide meals while schools are closed.
“We don’t have cooking facilities at the Millennium, so it’s kind of tough, especially since the children will be home,” Betye said.
DPS announced it will begin providing meals to 67 school and community sites starting Monday. Like other districts, DPS will deploy school buses to deliver food to designated sites, including hotels where McDougald Terrace residents live.
“DPS is working with the Durham Housing Authority to directly deliver to McDougald Terrace families that are still living in area hotels,” said DPS Spokesman Chip Sudderth.
Shamiqua Cole, a mother of four who moved out of McDougald Terrace three months ago and now resides at the Comfort Inn, spent $200 on a laptop so her children could participate in e-learning while out of school.
“It was money I had to take out of our food [allowance], our accessories, the things that we need on a daily basis,” Cole said.
Families in hotels have internet access because it is provided. Many of them have cell phones, but laptops and tablets are better devices for online learning.
Cole and her children, ages 1 to 13, share a room and two beds. The two oldest children attend Burton Elementary School. She said being out of school has been tough for them, especially the oldest, a son with special needs.
“He needs his education,” Cole said. “Being out of school is just pushing him further back.”
Cole said the children keep busy watching television and playing games, but she has set aside time each day for educational activities, focusing on areas where the children are weakest.
“We start around 11 a.m., working on multiplication, reading and science,” Cole said.
Back in McDougald Terrace, Ashley Canady, the resident council president, stood outside Unit 51B collecting food at an apartment. It had been previously converted into an after-school facility and now is used as a food pantry.
The apartment is stuffed with food and other essentials donated by good Samaritans. Two men stood by to unload items from cars.
Inside, volunteers sorted and stacked boxes of non-perishable items to distribute to residents at McDougald Terrace and those in area hotels.
Canady and her four children initially moved into a hotel but were among the first families to return. She said having her children out of school for such an extended period is “going to be an adventure.”
“My oldest daughter is already talking about she’s going stir-crazy in the house, because she likes to go to school and my four-year-old keeps saying she wants to go to school, so you give them their [school] work and you give them something to do,” Canady said.
She said her son has been working on assignments teachers sent home via Google documents; her oldest daughter has assignments that she’s working on.
“All of them pretty much have work except for the baby, so I’m going to go out and buy her some books and stuff like that,” Canady said.
She said many of the residents who have returned to McDougald Terrace do not have access to the internet or computers. “I think they need to find another way or find a way to get children laptops,” Canady said. “You’re expecting a child to do their homework on a computer and when they’re living in low-income communities, how are they going to do that when they don’t have access to computers?”
McDougald Terrace has six computers for residents, but they are old and lack internet connections, Canady said.
“We’ll be using my data service [for educational related activities] on my phone,” Canady said. “I can only imagine what my phone bill is going to be like, but education comes first, and we’ll work on that other stuff later.
“Hopefully someone can come to 51B and give us some internet service so kids can come to work here, and also maybe donate some computers to the hotels during this crisis so the kids can keep learning.”
Canady’s concerns might be partially eased by DPS’s’ plan to include printed supplemental learning material, which will be delivered by bus, along with food, from March 23 to 25. The printed materials will be in addition to those available online.
“These activities will not be new learning for students and are not required but will reinforce instruction received in class,” DPS said in a news release. “In-print activities will be provided for students who cannot access materials digitally and do not have internet access. Internet access or a device is NOT required for supplemental learning.”
Discussions about online learning often spin into discussions about equity. Low-wealth students and those in rural communities are less likely to have access to the internet or computers than better-heeled students in urban areas.
For example, because the School District of Philadelphia cannot ensure equal access to technology, it will not allow teachers to provide “remote instruction” that is graded while schools are closed because of the coronavirus outbreak, WHYY, the local National Public Radio affiliate in Philadelphia reported.
“To ensure equity, remote instruction should not be provided to students, including through the internet, technology at home, by phone, or otherwise,” educators were told in a letter from the Philadelphia district.
A handful of families with children are living in McDougald Terrace, but Canady said she’s keeping her kids isolated. “I can’t afford for any of my children to get sick,” Canady said.
Canady said the last three months have been as tough on residents who were displaced from their homes. And now they have to deal with COVID- 19.
The families also worry about regular hotel guests who may be carriers of the contagious virus. More than 6,300 people across the U.S. have been diagnosed with the virus, which has killed more than 140 people nationwide thus far. And globally, nearly 8,000 people have died after contracting COVID-19.
“We’re staying at a hotel and we have people checking in from anywhere,” said Tanya Kelley, a McDougald Terrace tenant living at the Comfort Inn on NC Highway 55 in Durham. “We don’t know where they just came from. We don’t know what hotel you [guests] just came from, and we have to interact with that.”
Canady said there are no restrictions on visiting McDougald families living in hotels, but residents are concerned about federal guidelines that recommend gatherings be limited to no more than 10 people. “All it’s going to take is for a couple of people to complain, so we’re voluntarily restricting access,” Canady said.
“It only made the situation worse because people are already dealing with mental issues and living in hotels,” Canady said about the virus. “Without us being able to go to them – they’re used to seeing our faces – it’s taking a toll on them, especially the kids.”