By Mary Niederberger
As the COVID-19 pandemic eases its grip on education, local homeless students have yet to return to a normal school day. Many are sitting at desks in strange classrooms surrounded by classmates and teachers they don’t know.
The severe region-wide shortage of bus drivers, which started during the pandemic, prevents homeless students from being transported back to their home districts – a right guaranteed to them under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
“Over and over we are hearing that there are not drivers to do the work of taking students from where they are now living to their original school district. It’s definitely a very concerning and increasing problem,” said Brian Knight, manager of community engagement at the Homeless Children’s Education Fund.
This comes at a time when advocates say homelessness is on the rise because of pandemic hardships, including job and housing losses, and the numbers are predicted to go even higher given the termination of eviction moratoriums and rental assistance programs. The Allegheny County Emergency Rental Assistance Program is set to expire in May.
Students are considered homeless if they lack “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” under the McKinney-Vento Act. The most recent data available shows there were 3,212 homeless students in Allegheny County in the 2019-2020 school year. Data for the 2020-2021 will be posted by the state Department of Education later this year.
Some local homeless students are living in shelters or motels. But the majority are housed in temporary settings doubled up with family or friends after losing their permanent residences. The moves often take children outside of their regular school districts.
The lack of transportation means a number of homeless students have been forced to switch enrollment to the school districts where their temporary housing is located, a move long known to be disruptive to their education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, it takes homeless students four to six months to recover academically after switching schools. And while this disruption continues, national and local analyses have shown that students fell behind in reading and math during the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, homeless students typically scored lower than other vulnerable student groups, including those who are economically disadvantaged. And during the pandemic, local homeless students “spent more time without [computer] devices and experienced internet issues at a much higher rate” than their peers, said Kaitlyn Nykwest HCEF’s afterschool and enrichment director. Those issues meant it took longer for them to get back into school.
“In general, with most of the students we are seeing, they have fallen behind in terms of all academics,” Nykwest said.
HCEF is trying to fill in academic gaps through its tutoring programs in shelters and in after school programs. It also has a Mobile Learning Program, funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation, that sends tutors to meet with students living outside of the shelter system.
But HCEF and school officials worry about the negative effect a prolonged bus driver shortage will have on the education of homeless students.
Under the provisions of the federal law, school districts are supposed to collaborate to provide transportation for homeless students between their districts. But most local districts are experiencing driver shortages – some so severe that they can’t always provide transportation for students within their districts.
“We can tell the schools a million times you have to provide transportation but we can’t build a driver,” said Nicole Anderson, who coordinates homeless students services at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. The AIU provides homeless services in a nine-county region of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Districts experience the problem from both sides
Homeless Pittsburgh students temporarily living outside the city often can’t get transportation back to Pittsburgh schools and students from other districts currently living in Pittsburgh aren’t always being transported to their home district. The situation is the same in the adjacent Woodland Hills School District.
Kellie Irwin, a Woodland Hills social worker, said she recently worked with the Pittsburgh district to enroll a homeless student from Pittsburgh Minadeo PreK-5 into a Woodland Hills elementary school.
“The family did live in the city and that’s where they went to school. But now they are doubled-up in Swissvale. No one can get them to the city and they are going to enroll here,” Irwin said.
Elena Runco, director of student support social workers in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said the district’s goal is to keep its homeless students attending Pittsburgh schools. The district is using alternative transportation methods when possible including reimbursing parents who can transport their children, using ride sharing services, such as Uber or Lyft, for older students and working with community organizations that have vans that could be used for student transport.
“But if there is no transportation, or it would take three bus transfers or an hour drive, it’s not possible,” she said. “So more students are having to change schools. Then they have to adapt to what is the expectation of that school. Schools are in different places in their curriculum. That has to have an impact on students.”
Knight spoke of a family currently living in a local shelter and trying to get transportation for several of their children back to their home district. The parents want their children to remain in their home district because some have individualized education programs and they believe continuity with those programs is important.
But the only transportation made available was bus passes and an hour-long commute that would require transfers. The family then chose to continue with remote learning through the home district rather than enroll the students in the district where they are currently being sheltered, Knight said.
Parents are transporting
Some homeless students are making it back to their home districts through the efforts of their parents and other family members, often using public transportation.
“We have a lot of kids on Port Authority and parents bringing kids on Port Authority,” Irwin said. “We have one family with kids in two different buildings. Mom and Dad get on different bus routes with the kids to get them to school.”
As with Pittsburgh, Woodland Hills is also using ride sharing services when possible and looking for other transportation carriers.
In addition, Woodland Hills is funding homeless students in its before school daycare program who may be able to get transportation to school with their older siblings whose classes start earlier in the day.
At Pittsburgh Langley K-8, there are currently 14 homeless families but all of the students are making it to school. “We have every child who is doubled up or in a shelter,” said social worker Sarah Armenti. “Someone is getting those kids here. It is not district transportation. I have families who are going out of their way to get here.”
However, the patchwork of transportation systems, which sometimes provides inconsistent service, leads to higher absentee rates among homeless students.
“Chronic absence is horrible across the board. But I’d be foolish to not say if a kid is not having a consistent bus route and it’s taking them an hour each way I think there is going to be an increase of attendance issues because the burden is just too much,” Irwin said.
Increases in homeless identification
During the pandemic, identification of homeless students plummeted. A survey of school district homeless liaisons completed in the fall of 2020 by SchoolHouse Connections and the University of Maryland, estimated that 420,000 fewer homeless students were identified nationally at that point in the school year.
Because students were not physically in school buildings, teachers and other staff had a harder time identifying homelessness through signs that their home situation might have changed– such as dirty clothing, changes in demeanor or irregular attendance. “During the COVID years, we lost contact with a lot of families that had needs,” Armenti said. “As long as they had a device, we didn’t truly know their living situation.”
Transportation is usually the most common way schools find out about a family’s homelessness, but that changed after the pandemic hit and students did not have a need for transportation. Families are often reluctant to identify themselves as homeless to school officials and did not always reveal their home situations.
“The reason we have trouble identifying is also embarrassment and shame which [parents] should not feel. Sometimes it is hidden and we have to look for other signs of homelesness and we can only do that if students are in school,” Runco said.
There is no public data on the number of homeless students in the state, county or individual districts for the 2020-2021 school year.
The most recent data provided by the state education department is for the 2019-20 school year, when the pandemic shut schools in mid-March. That year, Allegheny County districts reported 3,212 homeless students. The statewide total was 37,930.
Those numbers dropped slightly from 2018-19 when the county reported 3,260 students and the state total was 39,221.
Anderson said based on the district reports she’s seen, there was a decrease in the reporting of homeless students throughout the region during the 2020-2021 school year, particularly in urban areas, but that the numbers are increasing this year.
“We are seeing those numbers rebounding and coming back and I attribute that to kids being back in the classrooms and some districts working hard to identify,” Anderson said.
The Allegheny County Department of Human Services has also helped to identify homeless students through representatives at magisterial district court eviction and truancy hearings throughout the pandemic. Those representatives help to connect families to housing and other resources, including information about McKinney Vento rights for their children.
Some homeless families have connected with school systems through that process. Families who are doubled up with others don’t always understand that means they are homeless and that their children are entitled to services, said Erin Williams, director of DHS resource specialists.
The trend of lowered identification is visible in a handful of Allegheny County districts who have had the highest homeless student counts in recent years. Those districts provided their 2020-2021 counts to the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism in response to Right-to-Know requests.
Pittsburgh Public Schools saw its number of students identified as homeless drop from 804 in 2019-2020 to 427 in 2020-2021. So far this year, 484 students have been identified as homeless but Runco said she expects that number to grow as school staff increase their identification efforts and evictions resume.
The McKeesport Area School District saw its homeless student count drop from 83 in 2019-202 to 24 in 2020-2021. The total has increased to 77 so far this year. McKeesport district officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Likewise in the Highlands School District, the number of homeless students dipped from 102 in 2019-2020 to 67 in 2020-2021. So far this year, 56 students have been identified as homeless. Highlands district officials did not respond to a request for comment.
In Woodland Hills, 142 students were identified as homeless in 2019-2020 and the number fell to 115 in 2020-2021. This year, 96 students have been identified so far.
Meeting student and family needs
As identification of homeless students increases, more support will be needed from school districts.
Armenti said that homeless families at Langley seem to have more needs than in the past, but ask for modest amounts of help, and more of them cycled through homeless shelters during the pandemic than during years prior.. “I don’t know what to attribute that to except that maybe family members were fearful of each other during the pandemic,” she said.
Langley has an already established supply of food, clothing, coats and school supplies for homeless students and others whose parents identify a need, Armenti said. The items are provided through partnerships with Ernst & Young, through the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Adopt a School program and other organizations.
Weekly book bags filled with snacks and juice boxes are sent home with students whose parents have identified a need. Larger monthly food distributions are provided for those families with such items as pasta, sauce, canned vegetables, bread and peanut butter, Armenti said.
In addition, Armenti said the school now also has access to federal funds provided through the American Rescue Plan Act’s Homeless Children and Youth funding to identify and serve homeless students and their families. Pennsylvania received $24 million of the federal funding to be spent from July 1, 2021 through Sept. 30, 2024. It was distributed to eight regional homeless coordinators, including the AIU, and directly to school districts who applied for funding.
The AIU received $936,000 to use across its nine-county region and has created a consortium of schools to share in its services. In addition, the Pittsburgh district was allocated $667,693. Allocations were based on the number of homeless children reported in the 2018-19 school year.
The federal funds can be used with far more flexibility than past federal money for the homeless, including for vouchers for hotel stays for homeless families.
Armenti said some of the new funding has been used at her school to allow students to purchase new clothing.
“We can get items shipped right to us from Target and we are able to get them right to families,” Armenti said. “We try to be very anchored to our families and what they need.”
Worries about next school year
With additional training and federal funding, school staff across the region anticipate identifying more students. The students will then need to be connected to services, including academic and social and emotional support, and agencies that can help their families deal with housing and food insecurity.
“I think there are probably hundreds of kids who are not identified who should be identified,” Anderson said of the nine-county region she serves.
HCEF’s Knight said the federal funding “is hopefully going to be a really big solution for a lot of these issues. We look forward to continuing that work with school partners even more. Reaching out to families who are outside of the shelter system. They are harder to find.”
But identifying more students means there will be even more demand for transportation.
Knight is concerned that even with the influx of significant federal funding, the transportation shortage will remain an issue. Solving it “will require a very deep look at the system,” he said. Even before the pandemic, arranging transportation for homeless students was difficult.
Runco put it more bluntly: “Even if you have the funds, who are you paying when there are no drivers?”