Centering Students Experiencing Homelessness in School District Plans

The typical school day has changed dramatically since March 2020. COVID-19 necessitated remote learning across the country, which created strains on teachers, students, and families. But some students have lost essential school-based resources, such as food, a supportive environment, and a quiet place to learn, or even the opportunity to learn altogether.

The decline in school attendance and enrollment during remote learning has further exposed the massive digital divide. Estimates suggest millions of students face barriers to online learning and have not had consistent access to formal education since the pandemic hit. Absence translates to learning losses in the near term, and in the long term, students may not recover from learning gaps or reenroll (PDF) in school at all. Already, learning losses in school districts across the country are exacerbating learning and achievement gaps among students and further harming students with limited technology and students of color.

For students experiencing homelessness, this issue is particularly acute. Since March, their attendance rates have dropped significantly. Not all students experiencing homelessness have access to the same resources or face the same obstacles, but a majority of students named the lack of internet access as a key barrier. Some school districts have shared laptops and tablets with all students. But even with devices in hand, not all students have access to the Wi-Fi they need. Some shelters have Wi-Fi and quiet places to learn, but more often than not, shelter clients do not have access to Wi-Fi, and at times, shelters can be cellular dead zones.

Local governments and school districts are navigating the challenges of safely returning students to in-person school, continuing to expand access to remote learning, and exploring hybrid schooling options. As school districts pursue reopening plans, centering supports for students experiencing homelessness is critical. Schools, homeless service agencies and providers, local government, and philanthropy each have key roles in supporting their community’s vulnerable students—during and beyond the pandemic. Here are some actions they can consider.

Schools can expand their capacity to virtually identify students experiencing homelessness

During in-person school, teachers, counselors, and other support staff may be trained to look for potential indicators of housing insecurity among students. But during remote learning, these indicators look different. Schools and McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons can train teachers to recognize signs of housing insecurity in a remote environment, such as frequent background changes, including different homes, people, hotels, or public areas.

Schools can expand informational outreach about homelessness to all families  

It’s often difficult for homeless liaisons and school staff to stay in touch with students experiencing homelessness. As such, all school outreach should include information about resources for families experiencing housing insecurity, and enrollment forms should include questions about housing status. These communications should define homelessness as inclusive of living situations, such as in hotels or doubling up with relatives, to reach families who may not recognize their situation as housing insecure or eligible for supports. And materials should be available in multiple languages to effectively reach immigrant and non-English speaking audiences.

Schools can prioritize students experiencing homelessness in their reopening plans

Additionally, as schools implement transitions and hybrid schooling models, school leaders should prioritize students experiencing homelessness for in-person learning and other school-based services, such as learning pods, access to tutoring, child care, and extended school days.

Homeless shelters can increase resources for students

Shelters can support students’ school attendance by providing a quiet place to work, Wi-Fi, school supplies, and access to tutors. Additionally, shelters can establish relationships with McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons to coordinate referrals and services for students and their families.

Local government can boost funding for targeted support

The most recent stimulus relief package includes money for K–12 education through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. However, this package does not specifically designate money for the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program. If local agencies seek to prioritize students experiencing homelessness, they can use relief funding to boost resources to McKinney-Vento liaisons to increase outreach and other targeted services.

Philanthropy can fill funding gaps for students experiencing homelessness

Given all the competing priorities during the pandemic, philanthropic funding is necessary to supplement gaps in government spending. Philanthropy can step in to support school districts through education foundations for activities such as tutoring and in-person learning pods and increased counselors and social work services. Philanthropy may also focus their resources on school-housing partnerships where education and housing systems are aligned and working together to increase resources for students experiencing housing instability and homelessness.

There is a lot of uncertainty with schools working on plans to return to in-person schooling. The competing needs and low visibility of students experiencing homelessness leave these students particularly vulnerable to being overlooked. Support and resources for students experiencing homelessness through remote learning and the transition back to in person schooling requires coordinated plans and funding across social service agencies, providers, schools, nonprofits, and local and state education leaders to ensure these students can maintain their connection to their school community.