As temperatures began to dip this fall, Allen Blackwell III says he and his colleagues at Baltimore City Public Schools kept watch on weather reports hoping to see it hit 32 degrees. That would herald the opening of winter shelters where homeless students and their families could be housed.
“We were in the support area before. Now we’re dealing with survival,” says Blackwell, the district’s homeless and foster care liaison who oversees homeless services at 120 schools and 15 shelters as well as partnerships with local agencies.
For students experiencing homelessness, schools are a lifeline for their entire families. Blackwell’s department has continued to provide food, clothing and transportation support despite being largely cut off from in-person contact with students since March.
But that system only works if homelessness liaisons know where these students are. The COVID-19 pandemic made that exponentially harder when it forced districts to go virtual in the spring and kept many remote throughout the fall.
“School was really the only basic provider of services for these families, and that is even more so now even during school closures,” says Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection. The organization aims to help students overcome homelessness through education, policy advocacy and practical support to educators. “I think that’s a really important part of this: There really isn’t another system out there that’s meeting their needs. It’s school.”
Her organization identified a troubling trend after the COVID-19 pandemic hit: school homeless liaisons reported a whopping 28 percent drop in enrollment of students who identified as homeless.
SchoolHouse Connection partnered with the Poverty Solutions initiative at the University of Michigan to conduct a survey of more than 1,400 liaisons on COVID-19’s impact on homeless students liaisons and released a report on their findings in November.
“We wouldn’t expect homelessness to go down during an economic crisis. The fact that it dropped compared to a pre-pandemic year is very concerning,” Duffield says. “If schools don’t know who is experiencing homelessness, we can’t ensure they have the educational protections that they’re entitled to under federal law or the services they need to stay engaged in school.”
Given that federal estimates most recently put the number of homeless Pre-K-12 students 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.
Rebooting Lost Connections
Duffield says schools are trying to make contact with homeless students any way possible, whether that’s through public service announcements or by handing out flyers in laundromats. Some schools are asking for second, third or fourth contacts where the family can be reached in case they move. Others are training teachers to spot signs of homelessness among their remote students.
“Teachers are the first line because they may be the only educator that’s in touch with the student,” Duffield says. “When you don’t know where you are going to stay, when you don’t have a place to plug in your device, when you may be caring for your siblings because your parents have to work, all of those things can get in the way of participating in virtual learning too.”
Homelessness is self-identified by students and parents, Blackwell explains, so stigma invariably leads to an undercount even during a normal school year. But Baltimore City Public Schools recorded only 2,100 homeless students in the fall of 2020, he says, compared to 3,500 in fall 2019. The families his department serves frequently change phone numbers and addresses, and the spring shutdown of schools caused by the pandemic left plenty of time for them to fall out of touch with the district.
It seemed homeless students faced barriers to resources at every turn. Liaisons reported that 64 percent lacked adequate shelter and internet connections, according to SchoolHouse Connection’s findings, and more than 47 percent lacked sufficient food.
In Baltimore, students facing homelessness were first priority when it came to distributing remote learning devices, Blackwell says. But the district often struggled to communicate with homeless families about how to use them.
The district also piloted small group learning sites to give students a safe place to go and participate in virtual classes. However, the sites were available to just a fraction of vulnerable students一about 200 of the district’s 79,000 enrollment.
Some schools directly distribute 30-pound boxes of food, but not every family has the means to transport the box to where they are housed.
“You have the issue of: We have the resource, but the kid is unable to access it,” Blackwell says. “If you’re unable to access the resource, it doesn’t matter what the resource is.”
Jennifer Lawson, chief academic officer of Georgia’s Cobb County School District, said her district worked hard over the summer to devise a hybrid learning system where any of its nearly 110,000 students could easily go remote if they had to quarantine. To curb learning loss for vulnerable populations like students experiencing homelessness, staffed headed out to the community.
“It became about troops having to go out and look for kids. While that’s not different to what we did prior to last March, it became a much bigger issue and required a more active, full-time strategy and additional staff,” she says.
While Cobb County schools tapped into their network of community partners to help them locate students in need of homelessness interventions, the pandemic created a new population of homeless families who were unaware of services available to their children.
“We had to go out and almost scour buildings and hotels to look for children,” Lawson says. “The pandemic created a whole new level of families who were maybe always paycheck to paycheck and, all of a sudden, they weren’t able to make ends meet and were not familiar with what to do. Or of course the pride. They weren’t excited to ask for those things, but that’s what they’re there for.”
Parents who had fallen back on the support of family members in the past may not have had that option once COVID-19 hit.
“All of a sudden you could have multiple generations who were experiencing it, due to the pandemic, at the same time,” she says. “Everything we have done historically in education has been based on the fact that students report to this one location, and we know we can get them there. The pandemic has really turned the hub and the spokes on its head.”
‘Moment of Inequity’
Baltimore City Public Schools reopened for about a month starting mid-November but returned to virtual learning before closing for winter break.
Without the stabilizing environment of in-person school, Blackwell expects that his job in the summer will be to find all the homeless students who disconnected from school. His department is already working with its partners一which include food banks, housing assistance and health care agencies一on a 2021 strategy to assess and fill the needs of homeless families. The district is also creating an awareness campaign in hopes that more families will take advantage of the resources they provide for students.
“You’re having the greatest moment of inequality in my lifetime. You’re having a moment when you can see with your eyes students that will fall behind and never catch up because their living is not stable,” he says. “If you’re not providing food, clothing and shelter, you’re not dealing with the essentials of survival. And you’re expecting them to learn?”
Duffield is disappointed that federal COVID-19 legislation has lacked line-item funding for McKinney-Vento programs, which provide rights and services to youth experiencing homelessness, considering such programs have been allocated funds in previous disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 Midwestern floods. Only 18 percent of liaisons say their district is using CARES Act funding to address needs of students experiencing homelessness, according to SchoolHouse Connection’s November report.
“We’re advocating for more targeted, dedicated funding,” she says. “I think there’s a real strong need for educators to speak out for what they're seeing and argue for more flexible resources that meet families where they are.”
Duffield’s group also supports the proposed Emergency Family Stabilization Act, which would create a new funding stream through the Department of Health and Human Services for housing, childcare, health care and other resources for families facing homelessness.
In the immediate future, schools will have to continue trying to suss out who and where homeless students are, she says.
“My fear is that the kids who are in the shelter are the ones we will focus on—and not looking at who was homeless over the past nine months or the past school year,” Duffield says, “and using that as a marker to provide more intensive services. Part of that is going to be attending to social, emotional and physical health too. If we just focus on accelerated learning, then we’re not addressing the whole child, and the whole child needs assistance.”