[updated September 2018]
School can be a place of stability, normalcy and support for children and youth who are displaced by disasters. This brief summarizes five key policies and provides quick tips for their implementation.
Supporting Children and Youth Displaced by Disasters: Five Key Policies for Schools
1. Eligibility for Educational Protections and Services. Most children and youth who are displaced by disasters are likely to be eligible for the protections and services of the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act because they will meet the subtitle’s definition of homelessness. The McKinney-Vento education definition of homelessness includes children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. 42 U.S.C. §11434A(2)(A). It specifically covers children and youth living in shelters, transitional housing, cars, campgrounds, motels, and sharing the housing of others temporarily due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reasons. 42 U.S.C. §11434A(2)(B). The Act also provides a means for identifying these children and youth: all school districts are required to designate a liaison for McKinney-Vento students who is able to carry out ten specific legal duties, including identifying children and youth who meet the definition of homelessness. 42 U.S.C. §11432(g)(1)(J)(ii).
Tip: While all determinations of eligibility under the McKinney-Vento Act are individualized and should be made on a case-by-case basis, families and unaccompanied youth who are staying with others temporarily because they cannot return to their homes due to disasters generally would meet the definition of homelessness in the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act.
2. Immediate School Enrollment. Many children and youth who are homeless as a result of disasters are forced to stay far from their previous school attendance area. Having fled in crisis, they are unlikely to have the documents typically required for school enrollment. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, these students have the right to enroll immediately in the attendance area where they are currently living, even if they lack paperwork typically required for enrollment, and even if they have missed application or enrollment deadlines during any period of homelessness. 42 U.S.C. §11432(g)(3)(C). School districts are required to assist in obtaining documentation, including immunization and health records. 42 U.S.C. §§11432(g)(3)(C), (D).
Tip: In cases of widespread disasters, it may not be possible to obtain records from previous schools. In these cases, school personnel should enroll students experiencing homelessness immediately, as required by the McKinney-Vento Act, and speak with parents and youth directly to help determine appropriate class placement.
3. School Stability and Transportation. After a disaster, families and unaccompanied youth may be forced to move from one temporary location to another. They also may enroll in one school while their previous schools remain closed due to damage, but later seek to return to return to their original school when it reopens. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, children and youth experiencing homelessness have the right to attend their “school of origin,” defined as the school the student attended when permanently housed, or the school in which the student was last enrolled, including preschools and designated receiving schools at the next grade level for feeder school patterns. 42 U.S.C. §11432(g)(3)(I). The decision about whether to attend the school of origin, or enroll in a new school, must be based on the child’s best interest, including factors related to the impact of mobility on achievement, education, health, and safety of homeless children and youth, and must give priority to the request of the parent, guardian, or unaccompanied youth. 42 U.S.C. §11432(g)(3)(B)(ii). Each local educational agency (LEA) must provide transportation to the school of origin upon the request of a parent or guardian, or in the case of an unaccompanied youth, upon the request of the McKinney-Vento liaison. 42 U.S.C. §11432(g)(1)(J)(iii).
Tip: School personnel should speak with parents and unaccompanied youth who have been displaced by a disaster to help them consider all of the factors related to their children’s needs, and their current living situation, so that an informed decision regarding school placement may be made. Helping parents and youth make careful decisions about where to attend school also can help enhance students’ feeling of safety after a disaster and reduce disputes.
4. Support from Title I Part A. Every LEA that receives funding under Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is required to set aside funds to serve homeless students. 20 U.S.C. §6313(c)(3)(A). These funds may be used for services not ordinarily provided to other students, including transportation to the school of origin and other educationally-related support services. LEAs may adjust the amount of the set-aside based on need.
Tip: After a disaster, LEAs should review the Title I, Part A set-aside, in collaboration with the McKinney-Vento liaison, to ensure that it is adequate to serve the increased numbers and needs of homeless students.
5. School Meals. Families and youth who become homeless as a result of disasters may struggle to meet basic needs, such as food. McKinney-Vento students are categorically eligible for free school meals; they do not have to complete an application.
Tip: Inform families and youth that they are eligible for free school meals. Provide the local school food service office with the names of children and youth who are homeless, so that meals can be provided immediately.
- Two-page summary of the McKinney-Vento Act
- Two-page summary of the homelessness-related provisions in Title I, Part A
- National Center on Homeless Education’s Disaster Preparation and Response Page
- Access to Food for Homeless and Highly Mobile Students
Early Childhood Resources. Early education and care settings can provide stability for young children who are homeless due to disasters, as well as a safe place while parents seek supports they will need to re-establish their families. School district liaisons are required to ensure that young children experiencing homelessness have access to and receive Head Start, early intervention programs (Part C of the Individuals with Education Act), and preschool programs administered by local educational agencies.
Collaboration Resources. The ability to share information quickly among schools, disaster response agencies, shelters, and other service providers will expedite connections to the services that families need. To facilitate appropriate information-sharing, ask community partners to include your school district specifically on release of information forms, and include disaster response agencies, shelters, and other service providers on release of information forms that parents, guardians and youth sign upon enrollment in your school.
See Especially: Appendix 1, Commonly Used Acronyms in Disaster Work
Appendix 2, Common Terms and Definitions
Appendix 3, Federal Disaster Programs
Addressing Mental Health Needs. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, as well as over the following months and even years, children and youth can suffer from anxiety, fear, and other emotional consequences of trauma. Parents and other caregivers also may be struggling emotionally with loss of home, possessions, pets, and even lives. Connecting students and families to mental health supports immediately can help ameliorate these effects and help students feel safe and ready to focus on school.
- American Psychological Association Psychology Help Center for Disasters
- Psychological First Aid for Schools
Parent Guide in Spanish: Guía Para Los Padres Para Ayudar A Los Niños Después de Un Huracán