Equity & Diversity

More Than 1 in 4 Homeless Students Dropped Off Schools’ Radar During the Pandemic

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 25, 2020 4 min read
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In January, the U.S. Department of Education reported a record-high 1.5 million schoolchildren as homeless. By this fall, amid the pandemic’s school closures, shrinking capacity at homeless shelters, and ever-higher family mobility, more than 423,000 of them have fallen off school’s radars.

That estimate comes from a new report by the nonprofit homeless education advocacy group SchoolHouse Connection and Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan finds a 28 percent drop in the number of homeless students identified in fall 2020 compared to this time in 2019, based on reports from nearly 1,500 homeless liaisons in 49 states. Nearly 70 percent of homeless liaisons in the study reported they have had pandemic-related identification problems this year, in part due to school closures and families being forced out of homeless shelters because of new pandemic capacity restrictions. (The most recent federal data, which covers 2017-18, represented an 11 percent jump over the prior year and double that a decade ago.)

Barbara Duffield, executive director for SchoolHouse Connection, said her group’s projection may underestimate the number of homeless students who are missing education services during the pandemic. While 2.27 percent of public high school students were identified as homeless in 2017-18, the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey data shows nearly 5 percent of high school students actually were homeless at some point during the school year.

The largest share of homeless students don’t live in shelters, but are instead doubled up with other families, and these situations have become particularly precarious during quarantines. According to Laura Tucker, homeless liaison for the Sanchez Full Service Center in Tampa, Fla., and Sonia Pitzi, regional homeless education coordinator for the Lincoln Intermediate Unit #12 in York, Pa., more families have ended up stranded in cars, motels, and campgrounds after being forced to leave shared housing.

In Kansas City, Mo., homeless liaison Melissa Douglas has found only about 350 of the 800 homeless students she expected in her district. At this point she’s combing state records and calling district staff in both Missouri and neighboring Kansas. In particular, Douglas said she has been able to locate only 17 out of nearly 100 unaccompanied homeless youth who attended the district last year.

“It’s super difficult,” she said. “We’re just trying to see where families have landed because as a district, we are missing kids and they have not shown up electronically anywhere. So you’re trying to find out are they in a different district? Are they just not logging on? ‘Where are they?’ is just the question that’s being asked all the time.”

Douglas also got a grant through her district’s federal CARES Act funding to provide 300 free mobile phones with one- and two-year plans to homeless youth and families, to help the school keep in touch with them as they moved. She and her colleagues also created a Google number tied to multiple phone lines for the entire team, so that families could reach them more easily. So far, the district has handed out 30 phones, primarily to seniors, as part of efforts to help them keep up credits and graduate on time.

Duffield said her group has been working with districts to help teachers learn to identify more potentially homeless students virtually, such as noticing changing backgrounds or a child suddenly no longer having access to internet or video, such as in the public service message below:

Critical Care

However, Duffield said only 18 percent of homeless liaisons reported using federal pandemic relief funding for education support for homeless students. While prior relief packages for natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina included dedicated money for homeless students, that hasn’t happened yet during the pandemic.

“It’s an invisible population,” Duffield said. “There’s a lot of need and there are lot more vocal arguments for, like, ‘let’s just do Chromebooks for everybody,’ you know, ‘let’s just do [personal protective equipment] for everybody’ and not think about how’s this going to get to certain groups of students.”

The study also found that once identified, homeless students have critical needs:

  • 64 percent lack stable internet
  • 64 percent do not have shelter or other emergency housing
  • 47 percent needed food
  • 37 percent needed child care
  • and 21.5 percent needed health care.

Schools have always been a critical source of health care for homeless students, but Duffield said school-based tele-health and hygiene supplies have become critical during school closures. Douglas said she now provides packs of masks and hand sanitizer along with other supplies.

Pitzi brings her van to campgrounds to provide a hotspot to help homeless students keep up on remote learning, while also getting basics such as food and hygiene supplies. Twice already, she has been called by the local hospital because she was listed as an emergency contact for homeless students who were brought in with COVID-19 and ended up on respirators.

For more on homeless students in Kansas City, see this Education Week interview:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.