The integral role that schools play in the lives of students experiencing homelessness and the many challenges they face have never been clearer as the threat of coronavirus continues to grow and schools across the country close. Below are ten things to keep in mind about homeless students amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Students and families experiencing homelessness often:
- Rely on schools as a vital source of food. In 2018, 29.7 million children received free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. For students experiencing homelessness, who are over five times more likely to go hungry than their housed peers, these meals are even more important. Now, as workplaces close, parents lose their jobs and incomes, and food pantries struggle to keep up with demand and face a dwindling number of volunteers, the meals offered by schools are even more vital. In New York City and other districts across the country, schools are now offering grab-and-go meals to fill this need. In Los Angeles, they have gone a step further by providing these meals to all who ask for them.
- Have limited childcare options outside of schools. An estimated one-third of parents experiencing homelessness in New York City are employed, often in low-wage occupations. Citywide, 34% of residents worked in low-wage positions.With schools closed, many of these parents are left scrambling to secure childcare or risk losing a much-needed jobs to stay home and care for their kids. New York City has opened Regional Enrichment Centers to provide childcare for the children of some essential workers, including healthcare workers and first responders, but the centers are not available to all essential workers.
- Face many challenges in attending class consistently and remaining engaged in school. Students experiencing homelessness are already 1.5 times more likely to be chronically absent from school, setting students back academically and putting them at an increased risk—two times that of housed students—of dropping out of high school. Lengthy school closures may result in further disengagement from school and can increase the likelihood of a student who has experienced homelessness dropping out. It is important for teachers to maintain close ties with students to keep them consistently engaged when participating in distance learning.
- Struggle academically. Of the 40,000 homeless students in New York City who were of testing age, less than 25% scored high enough to be considered at grade level on either the math or English Language Arts exam, compared to approximately 40% of housed students. Even when homeless students perform at grade level early in their education, they tend to see their academic performance decline faster than that of their housed classmates in later years. Any disruption in learning may continue to widen the achievement gap, threatening their ability to keep up with the rest of their peers and graduate on time. Schools districts across the country are attempting to plug this gap by transitioning to remote learning.
- Do not have access to the internet and a personal computer. Nationally, an estimated 14.5 million households do not have internet access. In New York City, nearly a million households do not have broadband internet access and over 300,000 students do not have internet-connected devices at home. The shift to remote learning requires that students have access to these resources or risk being left behind. New York City is providing devices and internet to students in need, including iPads equipped with data plans, beginning with students in temporary housing. Many internet providers are also providing free broadband and WiFi for students without internet access at home. Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, is spending $100 million to provide computers and high-speed internet to all students who need it. Other districts, such as Philadelphia, have opted not to offer remote instruction citing equity concerns.
- Face language barriers. Roughly one in four homeless students in New York City is an English Language Learner (ELL), with over 160 different languages spoken in New York City schools. One report found that teachers working with ELLs are less likely to use digital resources targeted toward ELLs and have had fewer hours of professional development on the use of digital resources than their peers. Students who speak languages other than English and Spanish have even fewer resources available. New York City schools are creating remote learning plans for ELLs to receive targeted instruction, however, the provision of these services may be delayed as schools and teachers transition to this new reality. Consistent services for all ELLs, particularly those experiencing homelessness, are essential, with those who achieve fluency within their first three years of school outperforming their peers academically.
- Have special education needs. Meeting the special education needs of homeless students, who are more likely to have those needs identified and addressed later than their housed peers, is paramount to their academic success. Remote learning can be challenging for these students, as it lacks the structure and individual attention necessary for students with special education needs. Therapies and counseling services can be difficult to provide online, but in New York City, social workers plan to continue their work via video conferencing technology and meetings about Individualized Education Plans will take place by phone.
- Face worse health outcomes and have less access to health professionals. Students experiencing homelessness have less access to healthcare, with just over half reporting having seen a doctor within the last year compared to more than three-quarters of their housed peers. For many students experiencing homelessness, who are diagnosed with asthma at disproportionate rates, school nurses and school-based health centers may be the only access to healthcare they have. The novel coronavirus is a respiratory illness and those with asthma may be at higher risk of serious illness. It is crucial to the health and well-being of these students that they have free and easy access to testing for COVID-19.
- Face many challenges to their mental health and well-being. Students experiencing homelessness report feeling depressed at higher rates than their housed peers, with nearly half saying they were depressed. They reported attempting suicide at four times the rate of their housed peers. As students are forced to stay indoors in often unstable and crowded living arrangements, they are at risk of facing additional stress and isolation—a known trigger for suicidal thoughts.New York is currently mobilizing mental health professionals to provide counseling to residents via teleconference.
- Rely on school as a source of stability in an otherwise unstable life. A little over half of homeless students (54%) said they had a positive connection with a teacher or other adult at school, compared to nearly three-quarters of housed students (71%). School closures can be challenging for students experiencing homelessness, as schools provide predictable routines, connection with peers, and relationships with trusted adults. The sense of community that these connections provide for homeless students is vital. Without these relationships, many do not have other adults they can turn to for help or emotional support outside their families. Establishing new routines, consistent expectations, and regular check-ins is key to providing needed stability for homeless students.
The disadvantages faced by students and families experiencing homelessness have only been intensified by the realities of the COVID-19 crisis. While school closures prove necessary, the absence of the essential resources they provide and the scramble by schools and communities to fill these needs highlights a lack of stable infrastructure in place to support this vulnerable population. As this crisis continues, the needs of these students must be at the forefront of policy interventions. When recovery eventually begins, policymakers, schools, and service providers cannot afford to ignore the inequities that have come to light during this crisis and the long-lasting impact of this unanticipated educational disruption, nor can they fail to address the preexisting disadvantages faced by students experiencing homelessness.