Before the pandemic hit in March 2020, Faith – a single mother with two children, one in third grade and one in fifth grade – worked at a sports stadium in Houston. Her focus at the time was “paying for a room and trying to pay for child care,” she stated during an interview.
But after the pandemic began, the stadium canceled games and Faith found herself out of work. Not long afterward, she and her children were evicted.
“When they’re cutting hours and … work’s getting shut down … nobody making no money,” Faith, a young African American mother who did not finish high school, said during an interview held at a large and secure family shelter for the homeless. Faith – that name is a pseudonym to protect her privacy – spoke with my research team for a study designed to better understand student homelessness during the pandemic.
Like many children across the nation, Faith’s children began virtual schooling in March 2020 but experienced technical problems, such as slow and spotty internet.
“I mean, you got to be in the right spot, right time and then the signal went bad anyway,” Faith explained of her children’s challenges with finding reliable internet service.
Faith also struggled to keep her children engaged. For instance, when they were supposed to be paying attention in their online class, they would instead be watching TikTok videos.
She wondered how working mothers could be expected to sit down with their children all day. Despite the challenges of virtual learning, Faith said, she preferred online learning because she wanted her children “to be healthy” – that is, away from the risks of contracting COVID-19.
However, Faith felt pressured to send her children back to in-person school in Houston’s public school system in fall 2021, which made her “very nervous.” “We don’t have an option to do virtual,” she said.
Faith’s children are just two of the roughly 7,000 students in the Houston Independent School District – the eighth-largest public school district in the nation – who are experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were 1.28 million students experiencing homelessness nationwide as of the 2019-2020 school year, federal data shows.
A hard-to-see population
Student homelessness is defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as lacking a “fixed, regular, and adequate” place to sleep at night. Homelessness doesn’t always mean being out on the street. Rather, being homeless can take on different forms, such as “doubling up,” or staying with others because of loss of housing or economic necessity, as do about 78% of students who are homeless. Another 11% rely on shelters, 7% use motels, and 4% are in unsheltered places, like cars and parks.
Students from families who are homeless tend to move around a lot and frequently change schools, which disrupts their relationships with friends and teachers and can hurt their progress in school. Students experiencing homelessness tend to have lower attendance, test scores and graduation rates than other low-income classmates who aren’t homeless.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder to identify children who are homeless.
As part of a research partnership between the Houston Education Research Consortium and the Houston Independent School District, my colleagues Meredith Richards, an education policy professor, and postdoctoral fellow J. Kessa Roberts and I are examining how the pandemic has affected students experiencing homelessness and the schools and various organizations that support them.
Below are four broad areas on which educators, school leaders and others can focus to help students and families experiencing homelessness.
1. Figure out which students are homeless
Identifying students who are homeless can be a challenge because often families don’t reveal that they are homeless – because of stigma, fear or other factors – and educators aren’t always aware of the signs of homelessness. The pandemic made it that much harder because many students were attending school virtually.
When a school district fails to identify students who are experiencing homelessness, the students do not get the benefits to which they are entitled under federal law. These include the right to stay in the same school even if they move, to request school transportation and to access other resources, such as school uniforms or field trip fee waivers.
While schools typically collect housing information at the beginning of the year, schools can ask housing-related questions throughout the year as well.
2. Collaborate and share data
Schools and districts can collaborate with shelters and various organizations to make sure that students who experience homelessness get the resources to which they are entitled by federal law.
When shelters and schools agree to share data, school districts are able to be notified more promptly when students enter a shelter and in turn can hook students up with school supplies, tutoring or other services.
Rather than wait for families to notify schools of their needs, schools can proactively reach out to families to share positive news about their children, or send supplies. Strong, trusting relationships between families and schools can help overcome whatever hesitancy families may have to ask for help.
3. Make sure kids stay connected when necessary
If schools, classrooms or certain students are temporarily remote, schools can ensure students have digital devices and Wi-Fi to connect to class.
They can also work with shelters, libraries and other organizations to facilitate computer labs and academic support access for families experiencing homelessness.
4. Recognize and respond to mental health needs
Feelings of social isolation, common in homelessness, can be made worse by school closures, quarantines or family death. Many people, like Faith, lost their jobs because of COVID-19 – and were then evicted.
When helping families who have experienced these kinds of challenges, schools can offer services that focus on their social and emotional needs.
Educators can also connect families with mental health care and other resources, such as apps, websites and phone numbers to call to get additional services, as needed.
As families experiencing homelessness search for a stable place to stay, schools and districts can play an important role in alleviating some of the challenges that such families face.