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Schools Want More Time to Spend COVID-19 Aid for Homeless Students

School districts want more time to spend COVID-19 relief aid for homeless-student programs, citing growing need and logistical challenges in meeting the September 2024 spending deadline.

Senators who first championed that aid—$800 million for homeless children and youth included in the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act—circulated a letter to colleagues this week, rallying support to give districts an additional year to allocate that money.

District homeless liaisons have used the money to identify and locate homeless students, transport them to their original schools when their highly mobile families move into new attendance zones, and address the non-academic barriers that prevent them from attending or engaging in school.

“Unfortunately, the number of students experiencing homelessness has grown significantly, with a 16 percent increase in the number of families in homeless shelters last year alone—and that number doesn’t include the majority of homeless children and youth who move between couches, motels, and other locations,” said a letter signed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. “The simple fact is that child and youth homelessness is higher now, and the need is greater than prior to or during the pandemic.”

The lawmakers rallied colleagues Feb. 22 to sign onto the letter, which urges the Senate Appropriations Committee to include the extension in any fiscal 2024 spending plans. Congress must negotiate a budget compromise or pass a stop-gap spending bill by March 8 to avoid a full government shutdown.

Without an extension, the cutoff for the targeted homeless-student aid will coincide with the deadline for schools to obligate general K-12 COVID-19 relief funding providing to schools. Superintendents have unsuccessfully pressed for more time to spend those funds, and the U.S. Department of Education has offered some limited flexibility.

Schools use new funds to identify more homeless students

Advocates for students experiencing homelessness said the targeted COVID aid helped more schools reach more students than they have in the past. The American Recovery Plan funding is about six times higher than what districts receive in a typical year through the federal McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program.

About 10,000 school districts receive the targeted COVID-19 aid, and about 6,000 of those districts don’t typically qualify for ongoing McKinney-Vento funds because they don’t meet criteria, including having a high enrollment of identified homeless students, according to SchoolHouse Connection, an organization that advocates for students experiencing homelessness.

“In some places, [the targeted COVID aid] is making a huge difference, but it comes with this ticking clock” of a spending deadline, said Barbara Duffield, the organization’s executive director.

In a survey SchoolHouse Connection released Feb. 21, more than half of district homeless liaisons reported serving more homeless students in late 2023 than they had at the same point in the previous school year. The respondents attributed that increase to increased housing instability and an improved ability to identify homeless students, who may not realize they are eligible for services.

School programs use a more expansive definition of homelessness than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, counting students who sleep on friend’s couches, in motels, and other temporary arrangements. Seventy-six percent of the 1.1 million students in the most recent federal data were “doubled up” with other families. As a result, schools must conduct thorough outreach programs to locate students who may be disconnected from school and to ensure families are aware of resources that may help boost their attendance.

Districts used the influx of additional federal funding to hire social workers to connect students and their families to community programs. They also used it to stock school food pantries, buy washers and dryers to allow these highly mobile students to do laundry at school, and providenew shoes for children who had outgrown their only pair.

But some districts weren’t aware of all of the acceptable uses for the temporary aid until recently, Duffield said. In September 2023, a year before the spending deadline, the Education Department issued new guidance to clarify that the relief funding could fund emergency motel stays; gas cards, bicycles, and car repairs to address transportation barriers; grocery store gift cards to allow families to buy food; and early childhood programming.

Additional time to draw down the remaining funds will give districts the flexibility to meet students’ needs throughout the next school year, Duffield said.

“Schools need to have funds available to meet the most pressing needs when they arise,” rather than rushing to meet a deadline, Duffield said.

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