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Thinking Outside the Bus

Necessity triggers evolution. And necessity is a major catalyst in the evolution of trans-porting children who have disabilities, are experiencing homelessness, or are in foster care. This evolution was made even more critical by the contributing factors of a national school bus driver shortage and a two-year onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The crux of the problem is that each of these at-risk student populations is protected by federal and state laws on transportation safety, vehicle type and driver qualifications. And school districts must comply with those regulations to be eligible for millions of dollars in grants to initiate solutions to transportation issues that will preserve the equal access to free and appropriate public education (FAPE) opportunities by these student populations.

Students covered by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 receive mandatory transportation from temporary shelters to school and back, even when the shelter is outside of school district boundaries. The federal law extended similar protections to foster youth several years ago. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021 buoyed those efforts by providing $800 million in funding to provide access to education for homeless students but offered little guidance on how those funds could be applied.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), meanwhile, legislates that Individualized Education Programs (IEP) may require that school districts transport certain students based on their needs. However, IDEA does not specify that only yellow school buses be used to fulfill those needs. IDEA regulations state only that the vehicle must be allow-able by state law.

Grey areas invariably arise. Alleged deficiencies in transporting students with disabilities led to an investigation last year of Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Also in 2022, parental complaints resulted in a similar investigation by the Massachusetts Department of Education into how the Boston Public Schools system transports students with disabilities. Both school districts are developing plans to address those deficiencies.

A National View:
There were 1,099,221 children experiencing homelessness for the 2020-2021 school year, according to the most recent figures released by the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Although this number is down from the 1,280,886 in 2018-2019, the last pre-pandemic school year reported, chronic absentee-ism increased to 41.9 percent from 27.3 percent for the same period. This number was impacted by virtual learning, explained Barbara Duffield, executive director of The SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that is dedicated to ending homelessness through education by supporting state-based programs. She also noted that transportation was a recurring topic of discussion at a national conference on ending homelessness last summer in Washington, D.C.“[We] definitely heard lots of liaisons talking about increased [homeless] numbers due to inflation, housing costs and the lingering impact of the pandemic,” Duffield said. “And yes, the crunch on transportation, too.”

In a March 2022 document clarifying the “allowable and strategic” uses of ARP funds, SchoolHouse Connection noted that the funding is specifically dedicated to support identifying, enrolling and encouraging school participation of youth who are experiencing homelessness, including through wrap-around services such as transportation. The American Res-cue Plan-Homeless Children and Youth Funds (ARP-HCY) were released in two phases.

Among those uses covered in the document to fulfill IDEA and ARP-HCY requirements is contracting with third-party providers and vehicles other than school buses to transport students, as long as they comply with local education agency (LEA) requirements. This can include rideshare options to school and/or school activities, if allowed by states or local education agencies, “considering such concerns as safety, availability, convenience, and cost,” reads the summary. The ARP-HCY funds can also be used to reimburse parents for using rideshare with their child to school and home, and pay for gas or gift cards or for mileage reimbursement to parents who can drive their children.

Duffield defined “wrap around support” as anything that directly supports academics, adding that rules governing the use of ARP-HCY funds have allowed school districts to become more creative in how they are applied.

“You can buy vehicles, [pay for] car repairs, pay for drivers dedicated to specific purpose, and you can hire transportation coordinators,” Duffield said. “The fact that it is more flexible allows districts to support what will work well for their community and their school districts.”

Duffield commented that money to hire drivers is a plus. “But of course, having funds to hire and [identify] people to take those jobs are two different things,” she said. She also cautioned that ARP-HCY funds are finite and a one-time award so school districts should use them strategically to employ only those solutions they can sustain on their own.

The Great Lakes SolutionFollowing a recommendation outlined in the School-House Connection’s summary playbook, Charlotte Kinzley, manager of homeless and highly mobile students for Minneapolis Public Schools, said her district sought the advice through SchoolHouse Connection sponsored surveys of caregivers, students, school staff and community partners “to learn more about what types of support were most useful in supporting students to fully engage in school during a period of housing instability,” she said.

Kinzley noted that particular attention was paid to the responses of students and their families on the most pressing barriers to their education. A major theme was the importance of consistent, reliable transportation during an episode of homelessness.

“In order to best utilize this additional funding, we gathered information from those most impacted by homelessness as they are the experts needed to design the solutions,” Kinzley said. “Our survey was sent to care-givers, middle and high school students who had been identified as homeless-highly mobile (HHM) in the past two school years.”

Specifically, Kinzley said that 80 percent of caregivers of high school students and high school students themselves who regularly attended school during a period of housing instability noted consistent transportation as the most important factor. She added that among those who did not regularly attend school during a period of housing instability, 67 percent of caregivers of high school students reported a lack of consistent transportation as the most influential barrier. Students ranked transportation as the most helpful support, tied with access to basic needs like food, clothing and shoes.

Kinzley said the survey results prompted the district to invest 55 percent of its $660,000 in ARP funding to allocate toward transporting students experiencing homelessness.

“For example, when a student moves to a new ad-dress there is generally a three- to five-day delay in getting them set up with a regular route,” she explained. “The ARP funds pay for a short-term Type III provider to transport the student until a regular route is ready. These short-term vehicles have also been used to provide transportation when a route does not have a driver or when a caregiver or student needs to get to a school-sponsored event.

Minneapolis Public Schools also used the funds to hire a part-time scheduler to join a full-time scheduler on routing students experiencing homelessness. Kinzley said the impact of COVID-19 was hard on all students. Those struggling with housing instability feel the impact more dramatically. “Students are dealing with increased mental health concerns, have fallen further behind academically and are faced with increasing violence in their neighborhoods,” Kinzley said. “They bring all of this to school. They also bring incredible resilience, and many are rising above the odds every day. As a community, it is critical that we recognize this resilience and the need for additional support.”

Kinzley said the district optimally has 116 school bus drivers but was short 37 as of December. “The driver shortage reduces the overall number of drivers to getting [all students] to school,” Kinzley said. “If we do not have a driver, the route is canceled or runs very late. The shortage also necessitated moving special ed students to vans and cars for transport and that created more demand for the drivers of those service companies.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the January 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

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Related: States Receive $600M to Support Students Experiencing Homelessness
Related: Strategies Recommended for Safe Transportation of Students With Disabilities During, After Pandemic

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