An underreported consequence of parked school buses during COVID-19 school closures is that students experiencing homelessness are falling through the cracks, leaving liaisons challenged to identify everyone.
Barbara Duffield, executive director of the nonprofit Schoolhouse Connection that works to overcome homelessness through the public education system, said the pandemic has caused an onset of challenges for families navigating homelessness. She referred to widescale job loss and high unemployment, though the national unemployment rate fell to 6.9 percent by the end of October, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Natural disasters and social distancing requirements at shelters causing reduced capacity are also factors contributing to the growing numbers.
Duffield wrote an article in the April 2020 issue of School Transportation News that detailed the latest federal research on homeless students. The data indicate that 1.5 million children and youth were identified for the 2017-2018 school year, an 11 percent increase over the previous school year.
“They’re more hidden and more mobile [this year],” Duffield said. “And then the other piece that’s contributing to all of this, too, is that the eviction moratorium doesn’t cover people in motels. So, families in most states, you’re not considered a tenant. So those families also have less protection. They are homeless under education law, but they’re not covered by these moratoria.”
She added that all of these factors are making a bad situation, much worse. Duffield said her organization sent a survey to school district liaisons to gather whether the McKinney-Vento numbers at their district have increased or decreased. The report, “Lost in the Masked Shuffle & Virtual Void: Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Amidst the Pandemic,” published on Nov. 19, estimates that 420,000 fewer children and youth experiencing homelessness have been identified and enrolled in school this year.
The report also concludes that even though the overall student identification and enrollment is down, the number of children experiencing it has likely increased. In an NPR On Point podcast, Duffield stated, “What we heard at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, is that the people who are designated to identify students who are homeless were seeing fewer numbers. Their numbers were significantly reduced at a time when every indicator would point to increased family homelessness.”
She continued, “We surveyed those individuals, McKinney-Vento liaisons designated under federal law. And we found about on average a 28 percent drop in the number of students experiencing homelessness identified by public schools. Not because we’ve magically solved family homelessness during a pandemic, but because it’s so hard to identify families and youth who are homeless when schools are closed.”
Sharon Hill, a homeless liaison at Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS) in Georgia, confessed that she’s having a hard time identifying all the students protected under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, due in part to the lack of transportation services currently being provided.
SCCPSS started the 2020-2021 school year on Aug. 19 using a 100-percent virtual learning model. However, it revealed that younger students and those entering high school were struggling the most due to a lack of educational foundation. Hill explained that SCCPSS sought to rectify this by moving to a hybrid model for prekindergarten through second-grade students as well as ninth graders, at the start of October.
However, she noted that only 6,212 of the total 38,000 students enrolled are currently attending hybrid classes. Hill said 250 McKinney-Vento Students have been identified so far, with less than 1 percent requiring transportation services. She added that the numbers are low compared to when schools first closed in March when the district had identified upwards of 1,000 homeless students.
“I think the number has probably increased,” Hill said. “But again, it’s one of those situations where a large population for us with McKinney-Vento students are those that are doubled up. If you move in with a family member, nobody’s asking you for your proof of address or nobody’s making a big deal about home visits, and [students] kind of slide under the radar.”
She further explained that “doubled up” students are those who have lost their house and have moved in with either another family member or friends. However, because the child is attending school virtually, it is challenging for the district to identify these students. The district doesn’t even know where to begin the search, she confessed.
That is where transportation can play a vital role.
In speaking with school districts, Duffield said her organization quickly discovered distance learning models were resulting in zero transportation requests, which school districts normally utilize to identify students experiencing homelessness. In addition, with fewer school buses on the road, even less information is getting reported back to the districts.
“Bus drivers were some of the people who would also notice that students were experiencing homelessness. Without buses to reroute or whatever interim transportation to provide, and without those other eyes and ears [on the road], schools are really challenged to identify students who are experiencing homelessness,” Duffield explained.
Hill added that when a family first moves into a new area, the first question they usually ask the district is, “How do I get to school?” She explained families usually first contact the transportation department, which in turn refers the family to her.
Hill added that without the transportation piece, especially in terms of drivers being aware of picking up students at different locations, many students who need assistance are remaining hidden.
“I have had drivers who have called me and [said], ‘Hey, I don’t know if these kids are going to school, you know they used to live here.’ I’ve had to reframe my thought process because transportation is huge, it plays a huge part with McKinney-Vento,” Hill said.
She continued, “If we don’t have drivers or a need for transportation, then we don’t have a need for enrollment or school selection. All those things kind of fall by the wayside because we don’t have any students to transport.”
Meanwhile, Spotsylvania County Public Schools in Virginia currently has 23,028 students enrolled, relayed Michelle Patton Swisher, a McKinney-Vento and foster care liaison for the district. However, for the first nine weeks of the school year starting in August, Spotsylvania County implemented a full virtual educational model. Swisher, who is also a social worker, said the district is now offering a hybrid model of education, allowing students to come to school two days a week and be in a classroom setting with their teacher.
Currently, the Spotsylvania district has identified 277 McKinney-Vento students, but it ended last school year in March with 509. “We are less than we were at this point last year, but I think it’s because the parent has the right to choose a virtual model,” Swisher said. “So … they’re not accessing transportation, then the schools are not alerted to the fact that they have a need and have been identified as McKinney-Vento.”
She said her district is aware there are more homeless students, and those numbers are likely to increase once Virginia’s moratorium on evictions is lifted. “And I think that will have some significant impacts on our school system,” she added.
Swisher added another barrier is that after 15 days of a student not showing up for classes, they are dropped from the school system. In addition to her department, school social workers and school resource officers are canvassing the community in an attempt to identify these students.
“Sometimes you have those older students who are just not getting online. Mom and dad have gone to work, they’re in a hotel room by themselves. And there’s no accountability,” Swisher explained. “The kids are just not getting [online] or they’re falling back to sleep or they’re lying in their bed and they don’t really pay attention. So, then they click off and they’re not present for school. I do think that’s a nationwide hardship right now for the educational world, is how to engage those students.”
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Swisher said normally the transportation department and her office would meet in the summer to determine which students need transportation. However, a survey indicated that this school year, many families don’t feel comfortable sending their children on a bus due to the pandemic. A majority of families didn’t even fill out the survey, she added.
“When the pandemic started, we did a lot of outreach taking food to the hotels and that kind of thing, and [transportation director] Kenny Forrest was right there with us to do that,” Swisher said. “I think that says a lot when you’re willing to kind of go out and help in your community. It definitely makes a difference because you see firsthand the importance of education.”
She noted that Forrest understands the importance of getting students to school for education, adding that about 120 McKinney-Vento students are currently being transported this school year.
Meanwhile, Hill in Georgia advised that when delivering meals to students, transportation should seek permission to include flyers that educate families on McKinney-Vento and how to access its services.