In spite of unprecedented federal relief money to find and serve homeless students, districts are still struggling to find some 300,000 homeless children who fell off K-12 rolls during the pandemic.
As of 2020-21, the first full school year of the pandemic, the number of homeless students enrolled in public schools dropped 22 percent, to a little more than 1 million students, compared to the 1.3 million homeless students enrolled in 2018-19, according to a study by the homeless research group SchoolHouse Connection.
“No one thinks that homelessness went down [during the pandemic],” said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, “but districts are still struggling to catch up” in identifying and serving homeless students who moved, lost touch during remote learning, or otherwise became disconnected from school during the last few years.
In 2021, Congress dedicated $800 million in one-time pandemic relief money for homeless students—eight times the normal federal homeless education funding through McKinney-Vento Act grants. The pandemic aid has provided homeless education support for more than 6,300 districts that had not previously received McKinney-Vento grants, the report found, a more than six-fold increase. Identification has proven the most common use of the aid, in 27 out of the 37 states surveyed.
Homeless students who are Black and those who initially lived in shelters have seen the biggest enrollment declines, federal data show.
Districts have until January 2025 to spend the relief aid for homeless students. The report recommends districts and schools target homeless students in their larger responses to rising chronic absenteeism, learning loss, and mental health issues since the pandemic.
For example, the Cleveland public school system expanded its counseling staff to include a counselor dedicated only to serving homeless students, as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show homeless students are at significantly higher risk of suicide and other mental health problems.
These students “have the trauma of homelessness, but also if you look at the population of students experiencing homelessness, they are disproportionately students of color, LGBTQ students, pregnant students ... so right now, the school climate issues that we’re dealing with also affect them more, making layers of trauma,” Duffield said.
The Vancouver, Wash., public school system has hired specialists to coordinate with local housing and health agencies to support rising numbers of unaccompanied homeless youth. Among student groups, runaways and other unaccompanied homeless children have become particularly vulnerable, Duffield said, because in many areas they are too young to consent to medical treatment. That means unaccompanied youth have had more difficulty getting access to vaccines to protect against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and students who became sick have had difficulty getting health care.
In planning supports for homeless students, the report recommends that school and district leaders:
- Identify which groups of homeless students, such as English-learners or students temporarily rooming with other families, have become disconnected from school. In Minneapolis, for example, schools survey homeless parents and students regularly to identify their most common challenges to getting to school.
- Target the needs of homeless students when planning efforts to help recoup lost learning time. For example, if a school plans to offer summer or after-school programs, coordinate to make sure homeless students will have transportation and supplies to participate.
- In districts dealing with high teacher turnover, incorporate training to identify homeless students as part of orientation for new staff members.