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Students Experiencing Homelessness Could Be Disproportionately Impacted By School Closures

Courtesy Homeless Children's Education Fund
Arts supplies and personalized letters were distributed to children and youth living in Allegheny County homeless shelters this month. Most programming for those children has been cancelled.

Prolonged school closures are expected to disproportionately impact children and youth experiencing homelessness.

Carlos Carter, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh-based Homeless Children’s Education Fund, said statewide shutdowns to limit the spread of the new coronavirus underscore systemic inequities.

“All families are facing challenges, but the more stable households have technology, they have food, they’re not worried about that,” he said. “But for our families who are already hanging on the threads of stability or instability, this can really throw them over the cliff.”

State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said Wednesday that most of the work to support students experiencing homelessness is the responsibility of individual school districts. He said the Department of Education is coordinating with the 29 Intermediate Units, which are the points of contact for the state’s more than 500 districts.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit declined interview requests, but spokesperson Sarah McCluan said in an email that it was asking that districts follow up with identified homeless families to asses “both academic needs, but also basic needs such as food, housing, resources, etc.”

More than 4,000 children in Allegheny County are identified as homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Assistance Act. Those children and youth are often “doubled up” or sharing housing with other people because of loss of housing or economic hardship. Some are living in motels, hotels, cars or public spaces. Some youth are “couch surfing” or considered “unaccompanied homeless youth” who have either left their homes or have been abandoned or separated from parents.

That number has grown in Pennsylvania by more than 30 percent since 2015 according to a report released this year by the National Center for Homeless Education.

Carter said he is worried those children and youth will fall even further behind in school. Every district has a homeless student liaison who identifies homeless youth and sends information to the IU. Carter said even in better circumstances, communication with transient youth is challenging. Now, he is concerned that students could fall through the cracks.

“A lot of families are losing jobs. They don’t have the backup and support that others may have. They’re already in fragile situations trying to maintain housing, trying to keep food on the table,” he said. “A lot of these students don’t have the social capital to give them advantage. A lot of times that support is already tapped out in their network.”

Carter met virtually Thursday with the Homeless Education Network with representatives from county agencies and school districts to talk about supporting youth and families now experiencing homelessness. His organization issued a survey to those partners to assess their needs and the barriers to reaching youth.

Many schools are still providing grab-and-go meals to students. But Carter said getting to those locations without transportation is challenging for students identified as homeless.

His biggest concern now is connecting youth with technology because most schools are moving to online learning models.

“We have our seniors who are trying to go to college,” he said. “So they may need computer access so they can do their applications. We don't want those students to fall behind.”

McCluan with the AIU said school districts are still responsible for providing students experiencing homelessness with access to a free, appropriate, public education.

“If the district switches to online education and the student does not have a computer or internet access, then it would be the responsibility for the district to remove the barriers to education,” she said.

Carter said some districts are concerned they may not have the capacity to do that or deliver technology to students. The HCEF is asking for donations to support students experiencing housing instability.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.