Friday, April 12, 2024

Virginia Student Homelessness Numbers Near Pre-Pandemic Levels

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

RICHMOND — As Virginia school divisions investigate increases in chronic student absences, data shows the state’s homeless youth rate is returning close to pre-pandemic levels.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia recorded about 10,000 homeless youth in public schools annually. Those numbers dropped by nearly 3,000 students in the 2020-21 school year. Since then, however, they have steadily increased, reaching about 9,000 students, as pandemic-era protections and extra funding for programs like rental assistance and food assistance have expired.

Homeless students in Virginia by year

2017-18 – 10,138
2018-19 – 10,057
2019-20 – 10,268
2020-21 – 7,389
2021-22 – 8,006
2022-23 – 8,998

Source: Virginia Department of Education

School divisions and advocates are now swiftly moving to address the rise in homeless students as relief measures unwind for students and families.

Barbara Duffield, executive director for the nonprofit SchoolHouse Connection, an organization that combats homelessness, said actual cases could be even higher than what school officials have identified.

“It’s hard to know if a child is experiencing homelessness,” said Duffield. “But when children aren’t even in school or coming on a regular basis, then that really requires proactive outreach to the community — putting posters up in motels, talking to the service provider community, word of mouth, all of those things — to let families who aren’t in school know that they can come to school, and they can get the help to do that.”

Loudoun County, one of the most affluent counties in the country, reported the highest number of homeless students in Virginia at the start of the 2022-23 school year, with 1,240 cases, according to the Virginia Department of Education. That equates to nearly one in seven homeless students in Virginia attending school in Loudoun County.

Dan Adams, a spokesperson for Loudoun County Public Schools, did not respond to a request for an interview. However, he said that 36% of the division’s McKinney-Vento students — a reference to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which defines homeless students as those “who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” — were identified as chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 18 or more days of the academic year.

“LCPS staff, notably the Office of Student Services, is working hard to address this concerning trend,” Adams said in an email to the Mercury.

According to Virginia Department of Education data, Fairfax, Henrico, Prince William and Chesterfield counties round out the top five localities in Virginia with the most homeless students during the current school year.

Student absences have recently come under scrutiny in Virginia after the Board of Education decided to resume considering chronic absenteeism as a factor in school accreditation last month. The decision went against a request by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, which had asked that a pandemic policy suspending consideration of the measure in accreditation reviews be continued.

Chronic absenteeism is one of nine factors the state looks at when determining whether a school meets the state’s educational standards. Researchers with Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission have linked school accreditation and student academic performance.

The Board of Education previously suspended the use of the absenteeism factor due to the sharp increase in respiratory illnesses among youth and the COVID-19 pandemic. The absenteeism rate in Virginia schools has been more than four times higher in the 2022-23 school year than in the two years before the pandemic, according to a Virginia Association of School Superintendents survey.

Addressing the rate

Youth advocates said that nationally, almost 42% of students who were homeless were chronically absent from school in 2021, twice the chronic absenteeism rate seen among non-homeless students.

While many homeless students are accompanied by at least one adult family member, some are unaccompanied. In Henrico, for example, the number of McKinney-Vento students classified as unaccompanied reached a high of 18% in 2021-22, but has fallen to its pre-pandemic level of 13% this school year.

In Virginia, several programs are aimed at helping homeless students. William & Mary, which administers Virginia’s Program for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth for the Virginia Department of Education, tracks homelessness in public education, uses public awareness efforts to help improve homeless student attendance and success, and awards grants to school divisions.

Recently, Duffield said SchoolHouse Connection has been helping divisions determine how best to use COVID-19 relief funds to address student absences and learning losses. Fairfax County, for example, is looking to hire an attendance specialist to focus on connecting with families experiencing homelessness and help get their children to school regularly. And other funds can help with hygiene, clothing and other basic needs that can prevent a child from not coming to school.

“That money can meet some of these critical needs right now,” Duffield said.

Lisa Ann Abernathy, a Henrico education specialist and school liaison for McKinney-Vento services, said students facing homelessness can develop trauma as a result of being shuffled around from place to place. Students can also develop a fear of being bullied and anxiety because of difficulties with hygiene or wearing the same clothes.

“All of the trauma can affect a child’s willingness, ability and preparedness — both their emotional and physical well-being — to be able to go to school, and that’s where the cycle of chronic absenteeism and homelessness go hand-in-hand,” Abernathy said.

Henrico reported 501 cases of homelessness at the start of the 2022-23 school year. However, Abernathy said staff identified about 1,100 students who are eligible for McKinney-Vento. She said about 200 students were already chronically absent before being identified.

‘Couch surfing’

Homeless students face a range of living situations, from emergency or transitional shelters to homes of relatives or family members to public places such as bus or train stations or abandoned buildings.

Experts refer to the constant movement from place to place that many homeless people experience as “couch surfing.”

2022-23 Homeless student count

Loudoun – 1,240
Fairfax – 887
Henrico – 501
Prince William – 433
Chesterfield – 424
Roanoke City – 347
Virginia Beach – 308
Spotsylvania – 301
Newport News – 293
Richmond City – 217

Source: Virginia Department of Education

For students facing homelessness, the lack of a fixed regular residence isn’t the only challenge. Transportation can be an issue getting to school. Duffield said federal funds have been used to provide gas vouchers and funding to repair cars.

School divisions can also have difficulty identifying students in need because they are moving around from different homes to shelters and, in some cases, are alone. Under federal law, children identified as homeless have the right to stay enrolled in the same school district even if they’re living elsewhere.

Some districts are attempting to expand their aid to students in need as homelessness levels return to pre-pandemic rates. Starting in July, Henrico schools will have a full-time social worker who will focus on attendance and identify any barriers for families.

“We know that if a student completes high school, that is the number one factor that determines whether or not they’re going to break out of homelessness as a young adult,“ Abernathy said.

Funding and legislative efforts

Advocates fighting to address homelessness said one of the chief concerns moving forward is the end of relief funding for school divisions in September 2024.

“It has been a lifeline for schools,” said Rachael Deane, CEO of the child advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children.

As more relaxed pandemic rules expire, families and students facing economic insecurity have also started to lose protections and assistance with rental relief, health coverage and food benefits. Advocates are also concerned about students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged homes and those who identify as transgender or nonbinary, in need of mental health services.

“The funding is running out, but the challenges have not ended,” Deane said. “So we are very much concerned about schools having enough resources and the right resources to support students and families coming in through their doors.”

Duffield said SchoolHouse Connection is advocating for Congress to continue providing relief funding to support homeless children and youth.

In Virginia, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2022 allowing youth over age 14 to access shelter without a guardian. And in February, lawmakers passed legislation changing the state’s guidance on addressing childhood trauma to help schools manage students in need, including those who are homeless. However, a bill to require school divisions to make meals available to all students at no cost failed in a House subcommittee.

Voices for Virginia’s Children and others say they are monitoring the General Assembly’s decisions on budget amendments, including $230 million in proposed behavioral health investments that would increase funding for school-based mental health services for students facing challenges including homelessness.

The group is also following a proposal to fund more nursing and psychologist positions to help with increased behavioral issues among students. Advocates say the instability surrounding homeless students is one of several factors contributing to the rise in disruptive behaviors in schools.

Lawmakers have not provided a timetable for when a budget agreement is expected to be reached.

Moving forward, Abernathy said people should drop any bias they have against individuals who are homeless.

“People’s lives can turn upside down in a heartbeat,” she said. “Homelessness is not a choice. It is real, and it’s the kids who suffer. Our idea is to put that bias away, pack that baggage somewhere else, and just focus on moving these children forward.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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