Educating Migrant Children in Shelters: 6 Things to Know

Detainees rest under plastic blankets inside the detention facility in McAllen, Texas.
Detainees rest under plastic blankets inside the detention facility in McAllen, Texas.
—U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP
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After weeks of insisting Democrats were ultimately responsible for the migrant-child crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, President Donald Trump did an about-face Wednesday, reversing a policy that has separated thousands of migrant children from their families—most of whom are coming from Central American countries. But meanwhile, thousands of children will remain in federal custody and are entitled to certain education services while they remain there.

The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” enforcement policy on border-crossing offenses led to almost 2,000 children being separated from their families over a six-week period in April and May, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Trump’s executive order could reunite children with their parents, but families could be locked up indefinitely. Unaccompanied minors who arrived at the border without their families will remain detained.

In a photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States sit in one of the cages at a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, on June 17.
In a photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, people who've been taken into custody related to cases of illegal entry into the United States sit in one of the cages at a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, on June 17.
—U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector via AP


Before Trump signed the executive order to stop the family separations, his administration faced increasing pressure from education organizations, human rights groups, immigration advocates, and federal lawmakers from both parties to halt the practice of separating families. Groups including the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the National Education Association have spoken out against the policy.

Since at least April, children who arrived at the border were taken from their parents or guardians and placed in the care of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement with no immediate plans to reunite them with family. Reports and images of distraught children sleeping and living inside metal cages have gripped the nation.

While the children are in federal detention centers, officials must provide shelter, food, and schooling, but leaders in some of the nation’s largest states and school districts question whether the education needs of the children are being met.

Here’s a look at the official education requirements for these children, the qualifications for those being hired to provide these children with classroom instruction, and more.

1. What education services are children who’ve been separated from their parents and are being held at shelters entitled to?

The Department of Health and Human Services is ultimately responsible for providing education services to these children, and the agency works with private contractors to provide these services. Within 72 hours of migrant children entering a facility, care providers must conduct an educational assessment of each child, according to HHS requirements posted online. They must then provide education services “based on the individual academic development, literacy level, and linguistic ability of each unaccompanied alien child.”

HHS policy mandates that children receive a minimum of six hours of “structured education,” in science, social studies, math, reading, writing, and physical education, Monday through Friday throughout the entire year, with no academic breaks longer than two weeks. That means school-age children who are in the federal facilities should already be receiving instruction. The centers must also provide access to pre-GED classes and college-preparation tutorials for eligible older children.

Agencies that contract with HHS to provide these services must create individual plans for students who “have special needs, disabilities or medical or mental health issues.”

Children in these facilities are also entitled to daily outdoor activity, at least one hour of “structured leisure time activities” per week, and both individual and group counseling sessions.

Based on conversations with children who’ve been in the shelters, young people are receiving some form of education, said Jennifer de Haro, the managing attorney at Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES).

But de Haro stressed that those conversations haven’t yielded a full picture of what kind of schooling is happening in the facilities. “Anything traumatic interferes with learning,” De Haro said. “Whenever there are a lot of kids who need to be processed, or some sudden change is made, that can create some confusion and chaos. It usually creates an environment where things can slip through the cracks.”

2. What are the requirements for education staff working in these facilities?

According to a job posting for a “seasonal teacher” at a Brownsville, Texas, shelter run by Southwest Key, a contractor for HHS, those interested in the job must be able to provide the following “essential functions” among others:

  • “Create a safe and inclusive classroom environment of respect and rapport to ensure a positive learning experience for youth with diverse backgrounds.”
  • “Organize and prepare materials for daily instruction while ensuring the inventory of classroom materials, [which] may include: textbooks, furniture, and other equipment needed to assist in the provision of instruction.”
  • “Individualize lesson plans to meet each [student’s] academic level.”
  • “Assist with the coordination of Physical Education instruction with Shift Supervisor, Shift Leader or Program Director to ensure compliance with state and federal requirements.”

Qualified applicants, according to Southwest Key, are bilingual in English and Spanish, have a bachelor’s degree in education or a related field, and have one to two years of paid or unpaid experience working with youth, preferably in a bilingual setting, among other requirements.

A separate job posting for an “early childhood coordinator” at the Brownsville Southwest Key location says that person must “supervise all classroom activities,” integrate education activities with health care and other services provided, and perform the work with a “strong understanding” of the standards for early-childhood education provided by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Spanish speakers are preferred.

3. Are child migrants guaranteed a free public education under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plyler v. Doe ruling?

The Plyler ruling in 1982 held that public schools must provide equal access to education for all students in their jurisdiction, regardless of immigration status.

However, because the education services in shelters are ultimately the responsibility of the federal government and not public schools, Plyler has only applied in practice to recently arrived unaccompanied minors if they are placed with a parent, guardian, or sponsor in local communities with plans to attend school.

“These children, arguably, fall [under Plyler],” said Maura McInerney, the legal director at the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, referring to the children who’ve been separated from their parents in these locations. “But we’re treating the children differently.”

The children who are released by the Department of Homeland Security to relatives and guardians would be covered by Plyler, however. And those children could put an additional strain on local schools, because they would be “tasked with mitigating the trauma these kids have experienced,” said Sasha Pudelski, the advocacy director for AASA, in a post on Twitter.

Despite Plyler, migrant children who’ve been released from shelters to parents and other legal guardians are still having difficulty enrolling in local schools because they’re missing proper paperwork, among other issues, de Haro of RAICES said.

And for those who do enroll, “they’re having trouble focusing in schools,” de Haro said.

4. Is the federal government seeking support from schools and states to provide education for the children?

Citing reports that 1,000 children are being held at a recently reopened temporary shelter for unaccompanied children in Miami-Dade County, schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he has not received any communications from Health and Human Services or the Office of Refugee Resettlement about the presence of the children or provisions being made to provide them schooling. In a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen on Tuesday, Carvalho asked for clarity on which agency the district should work with to provide the children with “some connection with caring adults and access to educational services.”

The Texas State Teachers Association wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and state education commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday urging the state to develop and fund a plan to educate the thousands of children being held in detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Texas Education Agency did not immediately respond to Education Week’s interview request.

4. What role, if any, does the U.S. Department of Education play in the education of these children?

Elizabeth Hill, a department spokeswoman, did not respond to requests for comment about any support or other help the Education Department might be providing. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has made no public statements about the situation. DeVos did make waves recently when she told the House education committee that local schools could choose to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In subsequent Senate testimony, she backed off that stance.

6. Will the immigrant children have access to bilingual or Spanish-speaking instructors?

Federal law requires that these children receive an education that is appropriate for their needs, including English-as-a-second-language services. Southwest Key, the private company which operates 17 immigrant children’s centers in Texas, and similar facilities in Arizona and California, is actively seeking bilingual candidates with experience for teaching jobs.

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