On September 28, 2017, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy and Commissioner of Education Dr. Dianna R. Wentzell issued a joint memorandum to Connecticut superintendents of public schools outlining local educational agency (“LEA”) obligations to homeless youth displaced by natural disasters. It is anticipated that many school-age students will seek refuge in Connecticut in light of the devastation rendered in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. Public school districts are uniquely poised to supply a degree of normalcy to such students through educational opportunities and referrals to other services.
Under Subtitle VII-B of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 11431-11435, (the “Act”), children and youth in homeless situations are afforded certain educational protections. Under the Act, “homeless children and youth” include individuals who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” and often includes those students displaced by disasters, including those students staying in accommodations set up by relief and community agencies. Such students displaced by disasters generally meet the Act’s definition and, as noted in the joint memorandum, such students will also qualify for free school meals, as well as health and other related services.
Each LEA’s homeless education liaison should take steps to ensure that students entitled to the Act’s protections are identified, enrolled, and accommodated. Specifically, under 42 U.S.C. § 11432(g)(6)(A), liaisons are required to work with community agencies and school personnel to identify and immediately enroll eligible children and youth. Such students must be given full and equal opportunity to participate in all educational services for which they are eligible, including Head Start and pre-school programs administered by the LEA. Parents, guardians, and unaccompanied homeless youth must be provided information regarding and assistance in accessing all transportation services. Further, the LEA’s homeless education liaison must ensure that such students are provided referrals to appropriate services (i.e., health services). Public notice of the educational rights of homeless students in must be made in locations where such children and youth receive services, and enrollment disputes must be mediated promptly in accordance with the Act.
As noted, the Act requires that students experiencing homelessness be immediately enrolled in any public school serving the attendance area where they are temporarily staying. Although students displaced by Hurricane Maria may not have access to all documents ordinarily required for school enrollment, the relevant LEA must allow enrollment (i.e., attending classes and participating in school activities) even if such students do not have required documents. The LEA’s liaison must work to immediately obtain immunizations or immunization records for homeless students, and those students must be enrolled in the interim. Further, per Governor Malloy’s memorandum, students experiencing homelessness must be reported consistently and accurately in the Connecticut’s public school information system (“PSIS”). Additional guidance on the rights of students and obligations of public school districts is available through the National Center for Homeless Education (“NCHE”), whose publications include “What School District Administrators Should Know About the Educational Rights of Children and Youth Displaced by Disasters.”
In anticipation of a potential influx of displaced students into Connecticut’s public schools, homeless education liaisons at public school districts in Connecticut should review existing district policies and procedures regarding homeless students, form relationships with service and relief agencies to identify and assist such students, and ensure immediate and equal access to educational services and opportunities for eligible students.