WASHINGTON — Witnesses before a U.S. House panel this week advised lawmakers on how federal relief aid can help bridge educational gaps among children who are experiencing homeless and in foster care during the pandemic.
“While housing is critical, housing alone does not close the educational gap faced by students who have experienced homelessness,” Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, said in her testimony Wednesday before a subcommittee of the House Education & Labor Committee.
She said in her research she found that the pandemic made it more difficult for schools to identify homeless students, making it harder for teachers and administrators to help those students.
“The longer a student who is homeless goes unidentified by their school, the more challenges that child faces and the more likely it becomes for them to struggle academically and socially at school,” Erb-Downward said during her opening statement.
“As we move forward, it is critical that the money in the American Rescue Plan set aside for homeless students be used to support robust identification practices at schools. The pandemic has led thousands of children who are homeless to slip through the cracks. We must find and support them.”
The chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, a Democrat from the Northern Mariana Islands, asked Erb-Downward, along with the other witnesses, how school districts were using funds provided by coronavirus relief packages to address those vulnerable students. The most recent measure, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, was passed earlier this year.
He also asked about the challenges teachers and administrators face when identifying students experiencing homelessness or those in foster care.
“The consequences of this gap in the services that homeless children have been able to access will be felt by all of us long after the pandemic is behind us,” he said.
James Lane, Virginia’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said that because the American Rescue Plan provided $800 million for homeless students, Virginia’s schools will see an increase in McKinney-Vento funds. That is a federal program that ensures educational rights and protections for children experiencing homelessness, and Virginia’s share will rise from $1.7 million last year to $13 million.
“This additional federal funding provides an opportunity to scale new, creative support programs that had formerly relied on local grants,” he said.
Erb-Downward added that funding could be put toward increasing the amount of staff workers who serve as points of contact between schools and families experiencing homelessness, especially at local education agencies where 75% of facilities do not have a McKinney-Vento grant.
She also said that funding could help close structural gaps that prevent families from getting the support they need.
Michelle Linder-Coates, the executive director of pre-K partnerships for the School District of Philadelphia, said that her organization has worked to inform families struggling with homelessness about social services they can obtain.
She added that federal funds that her organization used went toward purchasing laptops and other technology for virtual school as well as buying personal protective equipment for in-person learning.
“We also allowed families to pick up meals to eat at home to ensure that children were not missing out on the non-educational support that we provide,” Linder-Coates said.
Republicans on the panel focused on reopening schools and aimed most of their questions to one of the witnesses, Gretchen Davis, a foster parent and former teacher from Arlington, Va.
Davis said that at the beginning of the pandemic she was caring for two foster children who struggled with online learning.
The ranking member of the panel, Burgess Owens, (R-Utah), was critical of teachers unions and the Biden administration, blaming them for slowing the reopening of schools during the pandemic.
“For these children, school is so much more than a place to learn,” Owens said, adding that school can be the only stable environment for foster kids and homeless children.
“The most frustrating part of this situation is that the research demonstrated for months that school aged children are less likely to transmit the virus to others, including adults, further reducing the risk,” he said.
Davis agreed and expressed her frustration at her school district for closing down during the pandemic. She said she felt the children in her care were already behind due to their circumstances and that online learning is not a replacement for in person instruction.
“What baffles me is the disconnect, knowing what we need to do and seeing districts around the country that have done it and they have gone back (to school) in October,” she said.
“I do worry about raising a generation of children who have been scared for 15 months by this pandemic when really things could have been back to normal back in October.”