When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in March 2020, most families with influence and wealth quickly and seamlessly shifted to remote learning.
Affluent families already had the necessary high-speed internet connections and the electronic devices to navigate learning from home. Many also had the wherewithal to employ tutors and to create “learning pods” to keep students engaged.
Those resources were not widely available to children in less affluent families, and especially not to children experiencing homelessness during what has become the worst public health crisis in a century.
“The children whose families are fighting for survival don’t have that luxury [of tutors and learning pods],” said Glennis Davis, executive director of A Giving Heart Project, Inc., a Charlotte-based nonprofit that supports children experiencing homelessness.
Lisa Phillips, the state coordinator for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Homeless Education Program, said the pandemic forced greater awareness of the needs of these families and students. A mid-year review by NCDPI identified 16,777 public school students experiencing homelessness in the state. Roughly 1.4 million students attend public schools in North Carolina.
“With the closure of schools, and students working remotely, the high needs of these students have been brought to light,” Phillips said. “Needs such as food insecurity and internet connectivity are now being seen by many more [people] rather than just those working directly with this population.”
To try and level the playing field, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona announced plans last month to distribute $800 million in federal aid to help support the more than 1.5 million homeless students enrolled in public schools across America. The number of nation’s homeless students could more than fill North Carolina’s public schools.
The aid is being released in two parts under the American Rescue Plan “Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Homeless Children and Youth Fund” over the next month.
The Education Department sent $200 million to states in an initial disbursement April 26 to supplement McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth funding. The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law that ensures the right of students to go to school even when they are homeless or don’t have a permanent address. The law’s intent is to reduce barriers that prevent homeless youth from enrolling, attending and succeeding in school. Those barriers include residency requirements and a lack of transportation and documentation, such as birth certificates and medical records.
The remaining $600 million will be released next month via a formula that uses districts’ funding allocation under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. That federal program was created to distribute funding to schools and districts with a high percentage of low-income families. The number of identified homeless children and youth in a district during the 2018-19 school year will also factor into disbursements.
North Carolina’s share of the initial allotment is $5.8 million. Its total share will be $23.6 million.
“The pandemic made the inequities in our education system even worse, especially for students experiencing homelessness,” Cardona said in a statement. “As districts and schools return to in-person learning, we must act with urgency to provide all students, including students experiencing homelessness, equitable access to high-quality learning environments and the resources to help meet their basic needs which schools often provide.”
States can use the money to address students’ academic, social, emotional and mental health needs, to hire staff, and to plan partnerships with community-based organizations.
“The major need for students that are experiencing homelessness is to create more sustainable systems for their caregivers, because the real problem is their homelessness,” said Davis, the A Giving Heart Project, Inc., executive director.
Many children experiencing homelessness are also struggling academically, she said. “As important as it is to make sure they get to school, it’s also important that we invest money to make sure they are successful in school,” Davis said. “They will need additional tutoring after this year, point blank and period.”
Phillips also cited other needs for these children: tutorial services in shelters, libraries and community centers, and a safe place to work on class assignments, homework and other projects.
According to a letter Cardona sent chief state school officers, districts may use the aid to pay for any expenses necessary to help in the identification, enrollment, retention, and educational success of homeless children and youth. This includes:
- Academic supports, trauma-informed care, social-emotional support, and mental health services, which could be provided in collaboration with community-based organizations;
- PPE, eyeglasses, school supplies and personal care items;
- Transportation for students to attend classes and participate fully in school activities;
- Cell phones or other technological devices;
- Access to reliable, high-speed internet for students through the purchase of equipment, mobile hotspots, wireless service plans or installation of Community Wi-Fi Hotspots, especially in underserved communities;
- Payments for short-term, temporary housing when it the only reasonable option to protect children from contracting COVID-19 and, when necessary, to allow them to attend school, including summer school; and
- Prepaid store cards and debit cards to purchase materials necessary for students to participate in school activities.
NCDPI officials acknowledge that it’s been difficult to get an accurate count of children and youth experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. The state will have a clearer picture next month after districts submit required end-of-year data, Phillips said.
“Homeless liaisons [required in each district under the McKinney-Vento Act] across the state have faced various issues with identifying students during the pandemic due to learning remotely and not being face to face in the building, which is consistent with what is being documented across the country in terms of challenges in identifying and serving students who are experiencing homelessness during the pandemic,” Phillips said.
Restrictions on home visits and limited access to services for homeless families have also impacted identification of youth experiencing homelessness, Phillips said.
“However, it is believed that once the moratorium on evictions is lifted, then an increase in identification will occur,” she said.
The Department of Education is concerned that historically underserved children and youth might not have been identified and, as a result, aren’t receiving the services and support they need. This includes students living in rural communities or on tribal lands, students of color, children with disabilities, English learners, LGBTQ+ youth, and pregnant, parenting, or caregiving students who are experiencing homelessness.
“The Department encourages States to award from funds reserved for State-level activities subgrants or contracts to community-based organizations that are well-positioned to identify such children and youth and connect them to educationally related supports and wraparound services,” Cardona said in his letter to state school leaders.