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Students Displaced by Hurricane Protected by Federal Law on Homeless

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By guest blogger Daarel Burnette II

The vast majority of students who may end up temporarily or permanently displaced by Hurricane Harvey are entitled to full protections under the federal McKinney-Vento Act that covers homeless students.

That could also end up placing extra financial and logistical weight on school districts serving students in and outside the area affected by the disaster.  

The law, which was renewed in 2015 along with the Every Student Succeeds Act, categorizes as homeless any student who "lives in temporary shelters and those who use places not designed for sleeping as their regular nighttime residence, such as a car, park, abandoned building, bus, train station, airport or camping ground." It also qualifies as homeless students who "double up" during financial hardships or natural disasters, meaning those living with relatives or family friends.

Homeless students under the act, no matter what their economic background, have a number of rights, including to free lunch and transportation to either their new school or to their school of origin. It falls on the homeless coordinator in each district to ensure students get what's required under the law. 

After Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of students were displaced and it took months, if not longer, for them to get back to their school of origin.  

Over the weekend, advocates for the homeless dispatched liaisons to the areas affected by the Harvey to field calls from parents and to provide district officials with technical assistance, said George Hancock, the director of the SERVE Center at the National Center for Homeless Education. The Texas Education Agency, meanwhile, posted on its website guidance for school officials regarding the homeless law.

"The disaster is traumatic, and homelessness is traumatic," Hancock said. "As they're displaced, we wouldn't want to then further exacerbate the situation. We want them to get back into their schools as quickly as they can so they can be in a stable and nurturing environment. The hope is to get at least one part of their lives back to normal." 

Considering that it's at the beginning of a new school year and many school officials are still familiarizing themselves with their new enrollment, there's bound to be technical confusion and a financial hurdle for districts that either lost or gained students due to the flooding, Hancock said.  

It's difficult to tell how many students will qualify as homeless, but Hancock said the number typically skyrockets after a flood such as the one in Houston.

The McKinney-Vento Act was first enacted in 1987 and requires districts to, among other things, hire a coordinator and make special accomodations to homeless students. Its primary goal is to create as much educational stability as possible for homeless students. 

Under the law, school officials must enroll homeless students immediately, even if they don't have all of the necessary paperwork, such as immunization shots, identification cards or transfer records.  

They also must provide the special needs, language, or gifted services students were being provided at their prior school.  

Regardless of a student's economic background, the school can use Title I funding for disadvantaged students to provide things such as eyeglasses, clothing to meet a school's uniform requirements, medical and dental services, and other health and social services.  

Advocates say they're pushing the state and federal governments to open up funding streams in addition to Title I to pay for services, especially transportation costs, which can skyrocket in the months after natural disasters. Otherwise the costs would fall on the districts.  

In crisis situations, Hancock said, federal, state and district officials can coordinate their services to accomodate homeless students.  

"Right now, with the volume of students impacted and realizing that there are a limited number of staff, we're trying to send as many brains and bodies down to help with homeless identification," Hancock said. 

He provided these links to assist district officials: 

https://nche.ed.gov/downloads/briefs/csds_admin.pdf

https://nche.ed.gov/downloads/briefs/csds_youth.pdf

https://nche.ed.gov/downloads/briefs/csds_relief.pdf 

Photo: Wanda Carpenter hugs her seven-year-old daughter, Samantha, as they take shelter from Hurricane Harvey in a community center on Aug. 26, in Fulton, Texas. --Courtney Sacco/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP


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