How can we combat the COVID slide among Pa.’s most vulnerable students? | Opinion

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By Anna Shaw-Amoah

Last month, Research for Action (RFA) released a report detailing the “continuity of education plans” that Allegheny County school districts published last spring when they were forced to close due to COVID-19.

Districts whose plans reflected greater learning opportunities served fewer economically disadvantaged students and fewer students of color. For example, those districts generally offered an earlier start date for remote learning and were more likely to provide adequate technology to students such as 1:1 devices or free WIFI hotspots.

We also found that just four out of the 56 district and charter school education plans we examined made any mention of providing services to students experiencing homelessness or students in foster care.

Could the same oversight of these students occur again as schools reopen in the fall? Of the 30 district reopening plans released recently in Allegheny County, only two mention any additional supports or service provision to students experiencing homelessness or in foster care.

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These student groups are some of the most vulnerable to “COVID slide”– learning lost during COVID-related school closures.

One study estimated that students nationwide returning to school this fall will only obtain about 70 percent of the learning gains in reading and just 50 percent of the learning gains in math compared to a typical school year.

In Texas, an analysis showed that students from low-income zip codes decreased their math skills by 56 percent in June compared to January, while students from middle-income zip codes decreased math skills by 34% and those in high-income zip codes increased math skills by 5 percent.

Students experiencing homelessness and students in foster care  are particularly susceptible to COVID slide.  These students are less likely to have access to reliable cell phone and Internet connections and a safe, stable place to complete instruction during the day.

How can districts plan to support vulnerable students this fall?

With the pandemic driving up homelessness as much as 45 percent by the end of the year, schools may be serving more students in the fall who have recently become homeless.

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Meanwhile, the pandemic has thrust the foster care system into crisis: during stay-at-home orders, family courts closed, visits with birth parents were suspended, and agencies have struggled to place children with foster families.

This means that schools will face larger populations of students who have recently undergone trauma and instability at home, affecting their ability to attend and participate in school.

Here are three ways school districts can support students experiencing homelessness and students in foster care this fall:

  1. Increase and adapt identification efforts. Identifying students experiencing homelessness is difficult even during in-person instruction, but it is even more complicated during remote or hybrid schooling. California released new identification strategies for homeless students in response to COVID, and Wisconsin’s school reopening guidance states that schools should train their staff to identify students who are newly homeless. Districts including Nashua School District in New Hampshire and Pittsburgh Public Schools have already committed to or started delivering staff training on identifying students experiencing homelessness.
  2. Prioritize vulnerable students for in-person instruction. National experts at Schoolhouse Connection advise that, given the particular challenges that students experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable students face in accessing remote learning opportunities, districts should consider prioritizing these students for in-person learning. Both Seattle Public Schools and Oakland Unified School District have committed to bringing students who have difficulty learning remotely back to classrooms first, including students experiencing homelessness and in foster care as well as special education students and English language learners. The Texas Education Agency will also prioritize low-income students with an unreliable Internet connection to return to school first.
  3. Support students’ mental health. Amidst the economic instability brought on by the pandemic, many students experiencing homelessness and those in foster care have undergone recent traumas and will require increased mental health support in order to succeed academically. Several states and districts are taking these needs into account in their reopening plans. For instance, Maryland districts have directed their foster care liaisons to assist students with their transition back to school by reaching out to students and caregivers about reopening plans, assessing students for signs of trauma, and referring students for services when necessary. Wisconsin’s school reopening guidance directs schools to re-establish connections with students who are experiencing homelessness, and provide instructional and mental health supports.

How can Pennsylvania support districts to meet the needs of vulnerable students this fall?

School districts need state support to adequately address the needs of students in foster care and students experiencing homelessness.

Pennsylvania joined a number of other states in requesting waivers from the USDA to allow them to continue to provide school meals to students during closures– a needed lifeline for students experiencing homelessness or in foster care.

Yet the state has made no financial commitments to support districts in meeting the enormous needs of these vulnerable students. Other states including Ohio and Washington as well as the District of Columbia have provided additional or reallocated funding to support students experiencing homelessness.

While individual districts may choose to use their allocation of CARES Act funding to meet the needs of students experiencing homelessness and students in foster care, a dedicated funding stream would help ensure that all districts are able to use funds this way.

Students in foster care and experiencing homelessness are not evenly distributed across Pennsylvania schools and districts.  By focusing emergency financial resources to where they are most needed, the state can help districts meet the academic needs of students experiencing homelessness and students in foster care.

Anna Shaw-Amoah is a policy associate at Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based education research organization.