As temperatures began to drop that fall, Allen Blackwell III said he and his colleagues at Baltimore City public schools were keeping an eye on the weather reports, hoping they would hit 32 degrees. That would herald the opening of winter shelters that could house homeless students and their families.

“We were previously in the support area. Now we are dealing with survival, ”said Blackwell, the district’s homeless and caregiver liaison officer who oversees homeless services in 120 schools and 15 shelters and partnerships with local authorities.

For students affected by homelessness, schools are a lifeline for their entire family. Blackwell’s division continues to provide grocery, clothing, and transportation support, though largely cut off from face-to-face contact with students since March.

However, this system only works if the homeless people know where these students are. The COVID-19 pandemic made this exponentially more difficult as it forced districts to go virtual in the spring and kept many out during the fall.

“The school really was the only basic service provider for these families, and that is all the more so now that the school was closed,” said Barbara Duffield, general manager of SchoolHouse Connection. The organization aims to help students overcome homelessness through education, political advocacy, and practical support for educators. “I think that’s a really important part of it: there really isn’t any other system that suits their needs. It’s school. ”

Her organization noted a worrying trend in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic: School homeless people reported a whopping 28 percent drop in enrollment of students who identified themselves as homeless.

SchoolHouse Connection partnered with the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative to conduct a survey of more than 1,400 liaison officers on the impact of COVID-19 on the connections of homeless students, and published a report of their findings in November.

“We wouldn’t expect homelessness to drop during an economic crisis. The fact that it is down from a year before the pandemic is very worrying, “says Duffield. “If schools don’t know who is homeless, we can’t ensure they have the educational protection they are entitled to under federal law or the services they need to keep school busy.”

Given federal estimates that the number of pre-K-12 homeless students was last at 1.4 million, the report estimates that 420,000 fewer homeless students were identified and enrolled in school compared to the fall of 2019.

Restart lost connections

According to Duffield, schools are trying to reach out to homeless students in some way, whether through public announcements or by handing out flyers in laundromats. Some schools ask for a second, third or fourth contact where the family can be reached in case they move. Others train teachers to identify signs of homelessness in their distant students.

“Teachers are on the first line because they may be the only educator who is in contact with the student,” says Duffield. “If you don’t know where to stay, if you don’t have a place to plug your device, if you might look after your siblings because your parents have to work, all of these things can come in the way, including virtual learning to participate. “

Homelessness is self-identified by students and parents, Blackwell explains, so stigma always leads to undercounting, even during a normal school year. But Baltimore City public schools had only 2,100 homeless students in the fall of 2020, compared to 3,500 in the fall of 2019. The families his department serves frequently change phone numbers and addresses, and the spring school closings caused by the pandemic left plenty of time for them to lose touch with the district.

It seemed like homeless students were faced with resource barriers at every turn. Liaison officers reported that, according to SchoolHouse Connection’s findings, 64 percent did not have adequate accommodations and internet connections, and more than 47 percent did not have adequate groceries.

In Baltimore, students affected by homelessness were the number one priority in distance learning device distribution, Blackwell says. However, the district often had difficulty communicating with homeless families about their use.

The district also piloted small-group study sites to provide students with a safe place to take virtual classes. However, the sites were only available to a fraction of vulnerable students – about 200 of the district’s 79,000 enrollments.

Some schools distribute 30-pound boxes of groceries directly, but not every family has the option to move the box to where it is housed.

“You have the problem: we have the resource, but the kid can’t access it,” says Blackwell. “If you can’t access the resource, it doesn’t matter what the resource is.”

Jennifer Lawson, academic director of Georgia’s Cobb County School District, said her district worked hard over the summer to develop a hybrid learning system that would allow any of its nearly 110,000 students to easily go remotely if they needed to be quarantined . In order to curb the learning loss for vulnerable groups such as the homeless, the employees went to the community.

“It was about troops going out looking for children. While this is no different than before last March, it became a much bigger problem and required a more active full-time strategy and additional staff, ”she says.

While schools in Cobb County used their network of community partners to find students in need of homelessness, the pandemic created a new population of homeless families who were unaware of the services for their children.

“We had to go out and almost search buildings and hotels looking for children,” Lawson says. “The pandemic has created a whole new level of families who may have been going from paycheck to paycheck and suddenly they couldn’t make ends meet and didn’t know what to do. Or pride, of course. You weren’t excited to ask about these things, but that’s what they’re there for. “

Parents who had relied on family support in the past may no longer have this option when COVID-19 hit.

“Suddenly there could be several generations who were experiencing it at the same time because of the pandemic,” she says. “Everything we’ve done in education in the past is based on the fact that students report in this one place and we know we can get them there. The pandemic has really turned the hub and the spokes upside down. “

“Moment of inequality”

Baltimore City public schools reopened for about a month from mid-November, but returned to virtual learning before closing for the winter break.

Without the stabilizing environment of personal school, Blackwell expects his summer job to be to find all of the homeless students who have left school. His department is already working with its partners, which include food banks, housing assistance and health authorities, on a strategy for 2021 to assess and meet the needs of homeless families. The district is also running an awareness-raising campaign in the hope that more families will use the resources they are providing for students.

“You have the greatest moment of inequality in my life. You have a moment when you can see with your eyes students who fall behind and never catch up because their livelihoods are unstable, ”he says. “If you don’t provide food, clothing, and shelter, you are not dealing with the basics of survival. And do you expect them to learn? “

Duffield is disappointed that federal COVID-19 legislation does not provide individual funding for McKinney-Vento programs that provide rights and services to youth who have become homeless because of such programs during previous disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Midwestern floods Funds were allocated in 2008. According to SchoolHouse Connection’s November report, only 18 percent of liaison officers say their district is using the CARES Act funds to meet the needs of students affected by homelessness.

“We are committed to more targeted and targeted funding,” she says. “I think there is a strong need for educators to stand up for what they see and stand up for more flexible resources that meet families where they are.”

Duffield’s group also supports the proposed Family Emergency Stabilization Act, which through the Department of Health and Human Services would create a new stream of funding for housing, childcare, health care and other resources for families with homelessness.

In the near future, schools will have to keep trying to find out who and where homeless students are, she says.

“I’m afraid the kids who are at the shelter are the ones we will focus on – and not paying attention to who was homeless in the last nine months or last school year,” says Duffield, offering more intensive services. Part of it will also take care of social, emotional, and physical health. If we only focus on accelerated learning, we are not addressing the whole child and the whole child needs support. “

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