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Shielding Students From the Economic Storm
Greta Hinderliter and her labradoodle Finnegan meet with two students from Kelly Walsh High School this month in Casper, Wyo. As the homeless liaison for the Natrona County School District, Hinderliter delivers supplies, conducts wellness checks, and mentors and tutors the district's several hundred homeless students. Cayla Nimmo for Education Week

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an economic collapse that district leaders fear will stretch their already worn social services for homeless, low-income students, and other vulnerable groups. That could have direct, long-term implications for these students' mental and physical health and, ultimately, their academic outcomes.

Advocacy groups are urging districts to do everything in their power to keep these students' needs front and center as they navigate this already tumultuous school year, including enhancing transportation, mental health and food services, ensuring access to digital devices and Wi-Fi, and being in constant touch with families about their housing situation.

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the School Year
Part 3: Tackling the Transportation Problem
Part 4: How to Make Remote Learning Work
Part 5: Teaching and Learning
Part 6: Overcoming Learning Loss
Part 7: Teaching Social-Emotional Skills
Part 8: Closing Equity Gaps
Full Report: How We Go Back to School

Districts already have dispatched teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, and social workers to children's homes to conduct wellness checks, deliver digital devices, school supplies, food, toilet paper, and clothing and hygiene products, and to connect them with social services.

And they are finding an alarming number of disengaged youths, many of whom they've lost touch with. In Texas alone, more than half a million youth were deemed "disconnected" this summer.

"These kids aren't disengaged because they don't want to go to school," Kerry Wrenick, Colorado's coordinator for education of homeless children and youth, pointed out. "It's sometimes because everyone in the house needs to work to survive.  Or they had to move, or they were illegally or legally evicted, or parents are continuing to work so kids are going to stay during the day with an older caregiver who doesn't know how to log in to school. The unpredictability of this entire situation is what's causing the most distress for both parents and school districts."

Nonetheless, there are steps schools can and should take now to prevent worse outcomes down the road for students bearing the brunt of the economic fallout.

Surge in Homelessness

Economically speaking, things will get worse before they get better.

For example, advocates are bracing for the end of a national eviction moratorium which, they say, will cause homeless rates to skyrocket. As students become homeless and increasingly on the move in search of shelter, the risk rises that schools will lose touch with them.

That's a tragedy because, for America's 1.3 million homeless students, school is the one place in their lives where they can access a range of public services.

"It truly is seven hours of stability," said Greta Hinderliter, a homeless liaison and certified teacher in Natrona County, Wyo., schools.  "For these kids, it's food, it's education, it's some love and understanding, counseling ... we cram as much as we can into those seven hours."

Downloadable: A Guide for Serving Homeless Students

Districts are required by federal law to provide homeless children—technically, those without fixed, regular, and adequate housing—with a series of services, including transportation to their home school, access to food services, and automatic enrollment.

But many districts, especially those that serve a disproportionate number of low-income, Black, and Latino students, are under their own form of fiscal distress. States' sales and income tax revenue has plummeted and many districts are laying off or reassigning staff members, many of whom were tasked with caring for low-income and homeless students.

What can schools do? Here's some advice from advocates:

1.) Enlist advocacy groups for support and training for regular educators on how to care for homeless students. Professional organizations and child advocates are scrambling to onboard new homeless liaisons, or appoint staff members tasked with assuring homeless students' needs are being met, and dispatch professional development on how to care for homeless and low-income childrens' needs for teachers and district leaders.

2.) Ensure that the students most in need of transportation get it. For schools conducting in-person learning, advocates worry that districts will fail to assure that homeless and low-income students have access to transportation to school and to after-school activities.

Some districts, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, have changed their bus routes to prevent overcrowding on buses. Other districts, in response to budget cuts, have significantly cut back on transportation altogether. Schools must factor the transportation needs of homeless students into those decisions.

3.) Be more assertive this year about reaching out to families and informing all children and their parents—no matter their existing or perceived housing situation—about homeless students' rights and the services available within and outside the district. Providing social services to migrant, foster, homeless, and low-income students for districts will be especially difficult for districts conducting all-remote learning.

Homeless-student liaisons, nurses, and social workers have historically used in-person learning to identify students' needs, look for signs of abuse or distress, and make sure that children and teenagers are being properly served.

Even before the pandemic, students and their parents were reluctant to let teachers and administrators know about their housing situation, out of fear of embarrassment or bullying. They're even less likely to let teachers know via a Zoom call that their family is homeless.

"No kid wants to go to school feeling and looking different than everybody else," Wrenick said. "They're intentionally secretive for self-preservation and protection.

"How can you help a family if you can't connect with them?" Wrenick asked.

4.) Distribute digital devices and coordinate with shelters to ensure that students have access to learning during remote instruction. Many low-income and homeless families don't have adequate devices or access to the internet for students to log in to class for hours at a time.

"When families can't afford to pay for food, spending money on the internet is out of the question," Wrenick pointed out.

Advocates also worry that homeless shelters won't be able to provide supervised rooms for school or the sort of broadband internet students need to log in to the computer. They are urging district leaders to frequently check in with local shelters to see what services they have available and what their students' needs are. If possible, they're urging shelters to set aside a supervised learning area for students.

If necessary, they said, districts should attempt to hand-deliver learning material to students without regular devices or access to the internet.

"The more stable and routine you can make the students' learning environment, the better," said Kenya Haynes, a program specialist for the National Center for Homeless Education.

5.) Find new ways to ensure students are fed. Another problem families in remote-only districts are running into this year is accessing free and reduced-priced meals. While many districts last year deployed paraprofessionals and bus drivers to deliver meals to pick-up points or even to families' homes, many districts this year have laid those employees off en masse until school buildings reopen.

Some districts this year, she said, are giving families debit cards to make food purchases at grocery stores, or delivering boxes of food throughout the school day rather than just during lunch times.

As her district's homeless liaison, Hinderliter, along with her therapy dog Finnegan has spent the last few months delivering supplies, conducting wellness checks, and providing mentoring and tutoring to the district's several hundred homeless students. With the economic downturn, the local coal mines and oil rigs have laid off scores of employees, so Hinderliter is bracing this year for the state's homeless rate to jump from 1,700 students to almost 2,400.

"In this state, we have this saying, 'Cowboy up, be tough, work through it,'" she said. "For many of my students, that's hard. But I see the potential in them changing their lives and getting ahead in life.  I'm here to be their cheerleader."