Enrollment of homeless students dropped by 14% — from 1,280,886 to 1,099,221 — between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, according to data released Wednesday in one of the first official federal counts documenting how the pandemic impacted this population.
Enrollment of homeless students decreased in every state except for four: Iowa, Montana, South Carolina and Vermont.
Overall, the national 2020-21 count also marks a 21% decrease in homeless students from the 2018-19 school year.
The research, conducted by the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, shows while fewer homeless students were enrolled, chronic absenteeism jumped from 27.3% to 41.9% among this population. The report, however, warns this number may be inflated due to chronic absenteeism being reported at the school rather than district level.
A separate but related report also released Wednesday by NCHE shows a disproportionate majority of the homeless students were English learners and children with disabilities in 2020-21 and years prior, with the percentage of both increasing slightly from previous years.
The official data confirms what many schools and organizations were already reporting since the start of COVID-19: that fewer homeless students were identified in the first full school year during the pandemic, and schools had a difficult time identifying them partly due to COVID-19 disruptions.
"I do think that COVID definitely had an impact," said Suzanne Peck, a program specialist at NCHE who is familiar with the data. Peck called the numbers "concerning" and cited differences in learning modes — such as remote, in-person or hybrid — as one reason for districts' difficulties in identifying students.
The report similarly cautions that the data could be skewed due to pandemic-altered school operations, which made it challenging for districts to identify and serve homeless students.
In fact, many state liaisons had already been reporting that fewer students were counted as homeless not because their families had found housing, but because schools failed to identify all homeless students.
A 2020 survey of 1,444 McKinney-Vento liaisons in 49 states found a 28% drop in the identification of homeless students compared to fall 2019, amounting to an estimated 420,000 fewer children identified at the start of the 2020-21 school year — the same year that also saw decreased federal counts.
In that survey, liaisons blamed the drop on an "inability to identify families/youth due to distance learning/school building closure.” Of liaisons who indicated that homeless student identification fell during the first full school year of the pandemic, 70% cited that as the primary reason.