Photo courtesy of Maritza Lopez

Due to the coronavirus crisis, California, like many states, is seeing surging unemployment, the highest in 50 years. Communities of color are prone to suffer higher rates of infection from the virus, and the economic burden disproportionately falls on black and Latinx parents, who are less likely to be able to work from home during the pandemic.

Moreover, data from Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the state, show that 599,000 residents have filed for unemployment, which could result in significant consequences for 558,000 children who live in households that may not be able to pay the rent.

Coupled with social justice uprisings related to the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, students are living through one of the most socially and economically stressful periods in generations. Young people will need the space to be heard and to be understood when school begins in the fall.

This is especially true for students experiencing homelessness, who now total more than 269,000 students in California — representing almost 1 in 5 of the country’s unhoused young people. How can schools support distance learning at home for students who don’t have a place to call home?

This is a serious question for school districts and counties to consider. For too long, students have been forced to keep their stories about housing instability carefully hidden from their peers and teachers. Stigmas around homelessness must change in schools if we want to dismantle stigmas that exist outside of schools.

Here are five ways districts can prepare for expected growth in students experiencing homelessness across California for the fall and prioritize the academic growth and wellbeing of our students, especially Latino and Black students who represent the majority of students experiencing homelessness.

1. Ask and listen. According to the most recent statewide California Healthy Kids Survey, many middle and high school students still struggle to find a caring adult in school. Checking in regularly, both formally (i.e. surveys) and informally, can give young people the space to share their interests, provide feedback on lessons and open up about what might be affecting their ability to learn. Each day of housing instability represents missed opportunities to support healthy development and transitions to a productive adulthood.

2. Universal screening. Schools can ask all students about the economic impact of the coronavirus lockdowns on their families’ financial and housing situations before they return to school, so they get access to services early on in the summer and school year. Students are often reluctant to self-identify as being homeless or they and their families may not consider their living situation as unstable or know they are eligible for supports. Given that many districts will only reopen virtually this fall, homeless liaisons will need extra support from districts to conduct universal screening of students to assess family needs.

3. Relationships first. A new national survey on the impact of the pandemic finds young people are concerned about their families’ safety and emotional well-being. Schools can act as a powerful buffer against the adverse effects of the pandemic by helping to establish a safe and supportive environment for learning. From morning meetings to regular check-ins with students, strategies that center around relationship-building in creative ways with minimal face-to-face connections will be needed in the fall.

4. Differentiated & flexible instruction. The abrupt transition to online learning left little time for districts identify and meet the needs of all students, especially students experiencing homelessness. Students experiencing homelessness whom we interviewed suggested schools could do more to prioritize flexibility in schedules, coursework and even transportation to help mitigate potential stressors. Giving students choices in class and multiple ways to demonstrate their learning can ease transitions and improve overall student engagement.

5. Greater coordination. Housing, child welfare and school system stakeholders across cities and counties must work together more effectively to alleviate barriers faced by students and families, especially in light of many districts that will only open virtually in the fall. This includes sharing resources, staffing and ideas.

Doing so can make it possible to create an integrated, family-centered response aimed at disrupting cyclical patterns of homelessness. It is clear now more than ever that no one agency, system, or institution can tackle the complexities of student homelessness in isolation.

Together, these strategies represent just the start of what school systems and schools should do differently to address the growing needs of students experiencing homelessness.

As it becomes clearer that most districts will reopen the school year virtually, we’ll also need to question our assumptions about whether students have a place to call home for distance learning and what we can do to open doors to distance learning.

The recommendations in this commentary are part of a forthcoming report that looks at opportunities to better serve students experiencing homelessness in California.


Joseph P. Bishop is the director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Leah Naomi Gonzales 3 years ago3 years ago

    I am a homeless mother with an almost 8 year old son. We live in Berkeley. We are literally homeless. In a tent. My sons education since the onset of this pandemic is nil. The true support, help and effort from this city, county, state, country, school district and system; pretty much equal that amount. Other than some hotel support in April May and June, from the donations of other district parents to a school fund, there … Read More

    I am a homeless mother with an almost 8 year old son. We live in Berkeley. We are literally homeless. In a tent. My sons education since the onset of this pandemic is nil.

    The true support, help and effort from this city, county, state, country, school district and system; pretty much equal that amount.

    Other than some hotel support in April May and June, from the donations of other district parents to a school fund, there has been no attempts made by anyone to actually bring homeless families into stable homes.

    There have been very few facades of attempts from city services over the last 5 1/2 years to “help” us. But considering those were almost always coupled with falsified reports to CPS, and never led to housing, you must understand my refusal to see any value in their efforts.

    As for education online, it is simply one more way for my child to be negatively impacted. Both in actual educational content value and emotional wellbeing. He already experienced separation due to our living situation. School was safe grounds for both him and I. He’s left with almost nothing since March.

    Previous to the SIP, the educational content he was receiving was beginning to deteriorate. I do not see this as something caused by his teacher. For whatever reason, what is required to be taught these days is severely lacking. To the point of impacting children with a negative value.

    From kindergarten to first grade, the structure and material went south. I was already at a breaking point with my acceptance of it being what my child would have continued learning. To be blunt, we both called it what it is. Bad math.

    Aside from math, there was a complete lack of any education that taught a child how to be properly educated. For example, the simple skill of proper writing body posture was and attentive learning behavior was completely left out. Actually writing structure was at a standstill due to the bad math failure school wide.

    But when SIP began, my child was barely learning word spelling memorization and recognition. With very little to no, writing practice involved. Then the online classes and computers stepped in. And all of a sudden his homework was things like ST Math and write a paragraph detailing this or that?


    Nobody bothered to teach him how to hold a pencil for an extended period of time in order to avoid or reduce hand cramping and back posture issues. Much less write an entire sentence.
    But give him a computer and no teacher and require him to do math at the level of a fifth grader and write entire paragraphs undirected. On a computer that access youtube. Really horrible YouTube.

    My son’s wellbeing and emotional state was devastated by the end of the school years learning format. Completely destructive given the fact that we were forced out if the hotel we were in and into a tent.The level of support from the district has completely stopped.

    He was put into second grade with no assessment and no acknowledgement of the destruction from last year’s end. Or acknowledging our very real level of homelessness.

    A new teacher and no hope for my son. Who gave up on school. In the first grade. How absolutely boldly do I have to say this?

    This SIP and this online learning and the completely abusive treatment from homeless services and public officials, coupled with school district’s board of education and edtech choosing to turn a blind eye to reality for the last ten years; is a crime beyond comparison.

    I might never get to see the true depths of my son’s mind or the capabilities he could have achieved. All because he has been purposefully neglectful uneducated by this educational system.

    Even before Covid-19 this abusive act was being established by educational systems.

    I had a child with a very specific goal in mind. That goal was to give life to a human being and then feed him with all the knowledge and beauty of life, possible. I wanted my child to have the chance to experience the growth that knowledge brings. And to hopefully love it as much as I do and as my mother does.

    The only thing that he has so far is the love of knowledge. Outside of what he’s been previously taught at school, the small amount I have been allowed to give him, lacking due to the extreme living of homelessness and escaping years of us both being abused, and what he has been able to grasp with his abilities; my son doesn’t have much hope for achieving the knowledge and skills of an uneducated farm worker.

    I won’t even bother to pan off into how all of this has affected his emotional being. For now, I will leave it at this.

    This is the true depths of what happens to homeless children today.

    Absolutely nothing good.

  2. Thomas Goin 3 years ago3 years ago

    I think the homeless figures would rise if they were to survey every registered student in community college. These figures do not reflect the over 40 students. I am a 55 year old homeless student with a 3.429 GPA and because of an identity theft issue, I cannot secure a lease and my credit rating is below 500. Housing should not be dependent on age. It should be afforded based on need.

  3. DJ 3 years ago3 years ago

    It’s appalling we are writing articles regarding how to deal with rising homelessness of children instead of demanding an END to homelessness. Please Mask up and march, or start each day writing to Congress, to whomever you think can solve this crisis and make it happen. Don’t just sit there.


    • Thomas Goin 3 years ago3 years ago

      DJ, you are absolutely correct.