Schools must provide a learning home for students experiencing homelessness

By Joseph P. Bishop
Originally published in EdSource

Due to the coronavirus crisis, California, like many states, is seeing surging unemployment, the highest in 50 years. Communities of color are prone to suffer higher rates of infection from the virus, and the economic burden disproportionately falls on black and Latinx parents, who are less likely to be able to work from home during the pandemic.

Moreover, data from Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the state, show that 599,000 residents have filed for unemployment, which could result in significant consequences for 558,000 children who live in households that may not be able to pay the rent.

Coupled with social justice uprisings related to the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, students are living through one of the most socially and economically stressful periods in generations. Young people will need the space to be heard and to be understood when school begins in the fall.

This is especially true for students experiencing homelessness, who now total more than 269,000 students in California — representing almost 1 in 5 of the country’s unhoused young people. How can schools support distance learning at home for students who don’t have a place to call home?

This is a serious question for school districts and counties to consider. For too long, students have been forced to keep their stories about housing instability carefully hidden from their peers and teachers. Stigmas around homelessness must change in schools if we want to dismantle stigmas that exist outside of schools.

Here are five ways districts can prepare for expected growth in students experiencing homelessness across California for the fall and prioritize the academic growth and wellbeing of our students, especially Latino and Black students who represent the majority of students experiencing homelessness.

1. Ask and listen. According to the most recent statewide California Healthy Kids Survey, many middle and high school students still struggle to find a caring adult in school. Checking in regularly, both formally (i.e. surveys) and informally, can give young people the space to share their interests, provide feedback on lessons and open up about what might be affecting their ability to learn. Each day of housing instability represents missed opportunities to support healthy development and transitions to a productive adulthood.

2. Universal screening. Schools can ask all students about the economic impact of the coronavirus lockdowns on their families’ financial and housing situations before they return to school, so they get access to services early on in the summer and school year. 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. Given that many districts will only reopen virtually this fall, homeless liaisons will need extra support from districts to conduct universal screening of students to assess family needs.

3. Relationships first. A new national survey on the impact of the pandemic finds young people are concerned about their families’ safety and emotional well-being. Schools can act as a powerful buffer against the adverse effects of the pandemic by helping to establish a safe and supportive environment for learning. From morning meetings to regular check-ins with students, strategies that center around relationship-building in creative ways with minimal face-to-face connections will be needed in the fall.

4. Differentiated & flexible instruction. The abrupt transition to online learning left little time for districts identify and meet the needs of all students, especially students experiencing homelessness. Students experiencing homelessness whom we interviewed suggested schools could do more to prioritize flexibility in schedules, coursework and even transportation to help mitigate potential stressors. Giving students choices in class and multiple ways to demonstrate their learning can ease transitions and improve overall student engagement.

5. Greater coordination. Housing, child welfare and school system stakeholders across cities and counties must work together more effectively to alleviate barriers faced by students and families, especially in light of many districts that will only open virtually in the fall. This includes sharing resources, staffing and ideas.

Doing so can make it possible to create an integrated, family-centered response aimed at disrupting cyclical patterns of homelessness. It is clear now more than ever that no one agency, system, or institution can tackle the complexities of student homelessness in isolation.

Together, these strategies represent just the start of what school systems and schools should do differently to address the growing needs of students experiencing homelessness.

As it becomes clearer that most districts will reopen the school year virtually, we’ll also need to question our assumptions about whether students have a place to call home for distance learning and what we can do to open doors to distance learning.

About the Author: Joseph P. Bishop is the director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA. 

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