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Student Well-Being

Cardona Releases First Wave of Aid to Help Schools Identify, Assist Homeless Students

By Evie Blad — April 23, 2021 3 min read
Rycc Smith welcomes Montello Elementary School students as they board his bus outside the Lewiston, Maine school after the first day back in nearly a month on Jan. 21, 2021. The entire school district switched to all remote learning after an uptick in COVID-19 cases last month.

Citing the urgency of identifying homeless students and supporting their participation in summer learning programs, the U.S. Department of Education announced plans Friday to release $200 million in targeted K-12 relief aid to states.

That funding, set to reach states Monday, is a quarter of the $800 million in emergency aid Congress allocated to support children and youth experiencing homelessness in the recently pass American Rescue Plan.

“The Department’s approach will ensure that states and [districts] have resources to provide support to students most in need as quickly as possible,” Cardona said in a letter to state schools chiefs.

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A Jefferson County School District student receives takes several bags with free meals delivered by a school bus in Fayette, Miss. As schools transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic, buses that once transported students now deliver meals and internet access. Those interruptions have made it more difficult to identify students at risk of homelessness.
A student receives free meals delivered by a school bus in Fayette, Miss. During the pandemic, buses that once transported students now deliver meals and internet access. Those interruptions have made it more difficult to identify students at risk of homelessness.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

School liaisons who work with homeless students have reported difficulties in identifying and assisting them during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as needs for support grow more urgent.

They’ve pushed the federal agency for maximum flexibility in using the new federal aid —which is about eight times what states are set to receive this year through the existing McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth program —to creatively address hurdles to school attendance, engagement, and academic success.

The first wave of funding will help states build their capacity to help schools, and it will help schools hire new staff and start the most urgent work of supporting students social, emotional, and academic needs, Cardona said in his letter.

The first portion of funds will be distributed under the existing rules for the McKinney-Vento program, he said. States can reserve up to 25 percent of their allotment for state-level activities before distributing the rest to schools.

The remaining three quarters of the aid will be released as early as June, after the agency creates regulations to distribute it more broadly under a formula that incorporates rules for Title I, a federal grant program for disadvantaged students, and homeless student counts from the 2018-19 school year.

Hours after Cardona’s announcement, he joined students from around the country in a virtual roundtable to hear about their experiences with homelessness. Several students recounted shifting between homes multiple times in a school year, sometimes without their teachers’ knowledge.

But when their schools were aware of their situations, students said they often provided a needed dose of stability.

“School has been a constant safe place for me to learn, develop and have a few of my needs met during my homelessness,” said Eric, a high school senior from Texas.

Students said their schools could play a more active role in helping them connect with existing community resources, like housing assistance, which can be difficult to access and identify.

“There are programs out there, but you have to do some real deep searching to find those,” said Joseph, a 20-year-old from California.

Senators who pushed for the new aid emphasized the importance of schools collaborating with outside organizations to provide wraparound supports that help meet students needs for physical, emotional, and social well-being.

Advocates said Friday they are pleased with Cardona’s approach for distributing the new aid. That’s in part because it will prepare states to assist schools that have not previously received homeless assistance aid due to low levels of funding for the existing federal program, said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, an organization that promotes policies to support students experiencing homelessness.

“I think [the Education Department] struck the perfect balance to help schools meet the urgent needs of children and youth experiencing homelessness now, and also plan for thoughtful, strategic use of funds in the hard months ahead,” she said.

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