For many homeless families, access to reliable transportation is imperative. The ability of parents to work and focus on other essential tasks can require dependable means of getting their children to and from school.
What’s more, countless other families might be a missed paycheck or illness away from homelessness. In some cases, transportation access for a school-aged child is crucial so that a parent can’t keep their job without it. And transportation also provides normalcy for the student.
In many of those circumstances, providing transportation for those in need doesn’t need to incur additional costs for a school district, even coming out of COVID-19. The Consolidated School District of New Britain, Connecticut, for example, was able to continue busing students experiencing homeless throughout the pandemic, at least under a hybrid learning model, and partially identify the educational needs of these children.
According to homeless children advocate Schoolhouse Connection, school districts nationwide were providing support services to an estimated 420,000 fewer students, compared to last school year.
Meanwhile, New Britain parents who indicate difficulty in getting their children to school will often receive permission for the children to walk to the nearest bus stop. There are often some empty seats in a school bus that’s already on the road, so the addition of these riders could be absorbed into an existing run. Other times, a route can be altered slightly, adding only a few minutes to its total run time but making a huge difference to a struggling family.
“Transportation is the largest barrier to homelessness,” said Joe Vaverchak, the homeless liaison for the district. “We’re very proactive in trying to break through every barrier.”
Not only does his staff regularly complete professional development, he said, they also work closely with other district employees such as school secretaries and administrators, as well as outside agencies. These individuals closely monitor students, reporting to one another if a situation changes or seems as if it might. The goal is to ensure that students’ educations can continue smoothly despite their personal upheaval.
Ann Marie Fippinger, director of student transportation for the nearby Bristol Public Schools system, agreed.
“We understand this is one area we can make less stressful when people’s lives are already stressful,” she said. “We do try to accommodate to the best of our ability.”
Both districts returned to full-time in-person classes during the first week of May.
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, students who are experiencing homelessness have the right to seek transportation to their school of origin, regardless of living outside what is usually considered the district’s boundaries. Currently, Bristol has approximately 113 homeless students and is transporting 36. The district has approximately 200 bus routes, which include both regular and special education, parochial schools, outplacements, vocational-agricultural and technical schools.
Meanwhile, New Britain has identified approximately 218 homeless students and was transporting 136 at the beginning of May. The district has 178 vehicles performing 938 runs.
Fippinger at Bristol said sometimes parents are too embarrassed to ask for special accommodations. That’s when solid relationships with school staff can make all the difference, as parents may feel more comfortable confiding in persons they see regularly and who know their children. Then, the staff members can contact her.
“Things are on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “We want them to start their day on a good note [through reliable transportation].”
In recent years, Fippinger noted, her district has gone the extra mile by transporting homeless children to various summer or vacation week camps. This is still a new service, although it’s becoming more common. The goal is to help students who have already faced numerous changes in their young lives to maintain the comfort of routine during times when the familiar school structure is not available. In addition, it helps parents who need a safe place for their children to spend break time while they are at work.
“It’s a constant puzzle,” Fippinger said, “just trying to find the right fit.”
Joanna Mechlinski is a transportation specialist for the Consolidated School District of New Britain in Connecticut as well as a former newspaper reporter.