Virtual Opportunities: A Study in the Accessibility of Public Education for Homeless Youth
The number of youths experiencing homelessness has increased over the last decade and has only been exacerbated due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although overall rates of homelessness declined in the last decade, the numbers of homeless youth continued to increase. Much of the existing body of research related to homelessness fails to capture the experiences of homeless youth and their families, many of whom are excluded from mainstream relief efforts due to the classification of nighttime residence categories. The McKinney Vento Act is a federal program established and reauthorized to allow additional resources for homeless youth and their families to reduce barriers to academic achievement. Despite these resources, McKinney Ventoeligible youth experience poorer academic outcomes and attendance rates than their housed peers. One consistent challenge for this population is transience, and protocols aimed to address transience often leave families without support or access to academic instruction for weeks at a time. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts were left to find solutions to new barriers for all students and implemented virtual learning opportunities on an unprecedented scale. This study examines how one school district’s approach to virtual learning resulted in new means to accessibility for this vulnerable population, despite high levels of transience. Through retrospective analysis of 191 de-identified student transcript records for 9th- 12th grade McKinney Vento youth from the 2018-2019, 2020-2021, and 2021-2022 school years, this project examined whether increased accessibility through virtual course opportunities would yield greater academic outcomes for McKinney Vento youth. Academic outcomes (measured as pass rates) were consistent with pre-COVID years. Despite national findings indicating significantly poorer academic outcomes for all students during this time, for MV youth to have fared consistently to prior years can be considered a successful outcome with possibilities for future implementation. Implications for practitioners, school social workers, and public-school faculty include greater congruence for MV youth remaining or achieving grade-level status, higher graduation rates, and reduced barriers to instruction.