Preparing for Back to School in Unusual Times – Highlights from the Webinar
As we approach the start of the 2020-21 school year, it’s safe to say that this will be a very different back-to-school season. For homeless and at-risk youth, education instability during the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially devastating. On July 23, 2020, the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families (NCHYF) hosted a live panel discussion to explore how Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) grantees, youth service organizations, and education professionals can work together to ensure homeless youth get the help and services they need during the upcoming school year.
The panel featured Christina Dukes, Deputy Director of Partnerships and Policy at the National Center on Homeless Education (NCHE) and Sheila Catron, the Executive Director at the Children’s Aid Society of West Texas (CASWT). The panelists shared emerging and promising strategies and practices on how grantees can more effectively navigate the upcoming school year for the youth they serve.
Ms. Dukes addressed the core issue – the effects of the pandemic on the education system. She outlined the very complex and sometimes seemingly competing considerations that communities are currently weighing for how to reopen schools for the new school year. Many school systems are considering an entirely virtual model, some are contemplating a full return to in-person learning, while others are settling somewhere in between with a hybrid of in-person or virtual allowing families or students to choose between fully virtual or hybrid. Ms. Dukes explained, just a few of the considerations driving those decisions are the health and safety of teachers, school staff, and students, students’ ability to learn effectively and feel connected, and the interplay between school engagement and parents’ ability to work.
To improve RHY education partnerships, Ms. Dukes emphasized the value of framing the partnership around statutory requirements for collaboration and desired outcomes for young people. Partners are needed to work together to identify young people experiencing homelessness and refer them to support from other community partners. Youth need support to achieve high school graduation, the transition and success in higher education, and for pregnant and parenting youth to have early care and education.
Next, Ms. Dukes offered a “Partnership Starter Pack” for RHY agencies seeking to develop strong partnerships with schools. First on the list is to reach out and connect with a state coordinator or local homeless education liaison. Also, since higher education landscapes vary by state and institution, she recommended contacting the NCHE helpline for assistance to learn more about state-specific conditions. To prevent a string of unproductive meetings, Ms. Dukes suggested that focusing on concrete and mutually beneficial partnership efforts will help keep up the momentum of the partnership. To round out the starter pack, Ms. Dukes highlighted the value of continuing to invest and maintain the conversation with partners over time.
Ms. Catron offered the valuable perspective of an RHY grantee operating a Basic Center emergency shelter. She began by sharing the three key areas of focus that she and her staff developed to address the situation of the pandemic and help the young people in the organization succeed with education:
- Communication with youth, families, and schools. This involves talking to the youth they serve at the CASWT, young people in aftercare, and even those beyond aftercare. This strategy includes touching base with youth whose families are struggling, as well as strengthening connections to schools, including school leadership teams and homeless liaisons. CASWT contacts schools before each semester begins, gives a presentation to all school staff on local RHY services, and conducts additional outreach to guidance counselors.
- Providing basic needs and resources for learning. This includes food, shelter, clothing, hand sanitizer, masks, and access to the internet. Make a referral list of agencies that can assist, verifying that they are still operating during the COVID crisis. To help with school, acquire tablets, phones, and laptops from second-hand shops, pawnshops, and businesses that supply computers to agencies like RHY organizations.
- Wanting to do more than survive – wanting to thrive. CASWT wants young people to reach academic goals and be successful in this time of rapid change. Ms. Catron stressed the importance of being a partner with school districts, with the broader community, and with youth who have gone through but are no longer served by an RHY program.
FYSB grantees have made COVID-19 an opportunity to be creative and resourceful in meeting the educational challenges of the youth that they serve. The new complexities also brought about some exciting innovations. NCHYF continues to monitor and develop new products and resources to support grantees and youth service organizations and to inform youth and families.