Distance learning for homeless students

While the immediate focus of the new school year has been on protecting students from the transmission of COVID-19, board members should also be mindful of how the pandemic has exacerbated economic hardship for families, including housing strain, which was a statewide crisis even before COVID-19. Now experts are predicting an “eviction cliff” this fall, and research shows that Latino, African American and immigrant families are twice as likely to be evicted as white families due to higher job losses and a higher percentage of families who rent rather than own their home. According to UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, nearly 1 million renter households in the state include someone who has lost a job because of the pandemic, and almost half of renter households — 422,000 — are families with children. Potential increases in homelessness will likely impact schools’ efforts to identify and serve this vulnerable student population.

The obligations of local educational agencies to ensure that homeless students have equal access to the educational program are detailed in the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Requirements of the Act include giving a housing questionnaire to all parents/guardians during school registration, including the district liaison’s contact information on district and school websites, providing staff professional development on the definition and signs of homelessness, and contacting appropriate local agencies to coordinate referrals for homeless children and unaccompanied youth. For further information about the requirements, see CSBA’s sample board policy and administrative regulation BP/AR 6173 – Education for Homeless Children and the summer issue of California Schools magazine.

California’s shortage of shelters means that children may be unsheltered, sleeping in cars or staying with friends and family. These housing situations put families at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and may significantly disrupt children’s access to a quiet, safe and connected place to engage in distance or hybrid learning.

“Distance learning may reveal living situations that students may have felt uncomfortable sharing previously at school,” said CSBA Policy Consultant Briana Mullen. “Students who are experiencing homelessness may not feel comfortable turning on their video or sound to participate in class or disclosing their current living situation for fear of embarrassment and bullying. School staff should consider ways to help reduce the shame and discomfort that may impede students and families from asking for the resources they are allowed under the law.”

California student waiting for the bus on the curb

Joseph P. Bishop, director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA, suggests that schools take the following steps to prepare for the expected growth in the homeless student population and to prioritize the academic growth and well-being of students:

  1. Ask and listen. Checking in regularly, both formally (e.g., surveys) and informally, can give young people space to share their interests, provide feedback on lessons and open up about what might be affecting their ability to learn.
  2. Universal screening. Students are often reluctant to self-identify as being homeless, or they and their families may not consider their living situation as unstable or know they are eligible for supports.
  3. Relationships first. Schools can be powerful buffers against the adverse effects of the pandemic by helping to establish safe and supportive environments for learning.
  4. Differentiated and flexible instruction. Giving students choices in class and multiple ways to demonstrate their learning can ease transitions and improve overall student engagement.
  5. Greater coordination. School system, housing and child welfare stakeholders across cities and counties must work together more effectively to alleviate barriers faced by students and families.

As homeless students struggle to adapt to new learning situations, flexibility, empathy and communication will be key to ensuring these students stay engaged and know they can reach out to ask for support.