4 priorities for serving homeless students when they return to campus

By: | February 5, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic response has contributed to economic-related crises in communities around the country, adversely affecting already vulnerable populations like students with disabilities, who are typically overrepresented among students experiencing homelessness.

Special education and other programs serving these students should be mindful of homeless student needs as they return to in-person learning amid the pandemic, says SchoolHouse Connection Executive Director Barbara Duffield.

Duffield shared four priorities—among the duties of local homeless education liaisons under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act—to ensure students experiencing homelessness have the appropriate supports when they physically reenter schools.

Districts should “make no assumptions” about students’ housing status and access to resources, which are subject to change especially as the pandemic persists, said Duffield, who added that the effects of homelessness, however temporary, can be lasting.

1. Shoring up screening processes to identify and assess student needs.

“It’s important for all students to be screened for their housing status,” said Duffield. “It gives more methods for asking about homelessness.”

Ensure district outreach methods for identifying students’ housing status consider the experiences of students over the past year, during the pandemic response. 42 USC 11432 (g)(6)(A)(i).

2. Ensuring contacts with McKinney-Vento students are updated and reliable.

Districts should make sure there are reliable ways to communicate with students identified for homeless education services, she said. Get a second and third reliable contact for students and families in case they move or change phones.

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Liaisons can incorporate social media in their outreach and communication plans so that highly mobile families may always have contact with the liaison, their school, and other community resources.

3. Providing supplies for students’ safe return to in-person learning.

A general concern among homeless education practitioners is public health policies and following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—social distancing, handwashing, and wearing masks and other personal protective equipment.

“The big piece here is that we cannot presume that anyone has the supplies they need to return to school,” said Duffield. She said schools must address basic student needs to ensure they can participate safely in school, providing whatever supplies are necessary to help them succeed in school. See 42 USC 11433 (d)(15).

4. Reinforcing connections with mental health supports and other services.

Duffield said students returning to in-person learning may need additional mental health supports. Many of them will also require additional services to address learning loss during the pandemic.

Liaisons want to borrow tools that other districts have created, such as a script and training. Create spaces for districts to learn from each other. 42 USC 11432 (g)(6)(A)(iii) and 42 USC 11432 (g)(6)(A)(iv).

Johnny Jackson covers special education issues for LRP Publications.

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