Answer: There is specific language in the McKinney-Vento Act that addresses this question. First:
“C) IMMEDIATE ENROLLMENT-
(i) IN GENERAL.– The school selected in accordance with this paragraph shall immediately
enroll the homeless child or youth, even if the child or youth— …
(II) has missed application or enrollment deadlines during any period of
homelessness.” 42 USC 11432(g)(3)(C).
“[T]he State educational agency and local educational agencies in the State … shall review and revise, policies to remove barriers to the identification of homeless children and youths, and the enrollment and retention of homeless children and youths in schools in the State, including barriers to enrollment and retention due to outstanding fees or fines, or absences.” 42 USC 11432(g)(1)(I).
As a federal law, these requirements overrule conflicting state and local policies. The McKinney-Vento Act certainly does not require putting children in harm’s way during an active outbreak of a disease. For example, if a school is requiring all students to wear masks, McKinney-Vento students also need to wear masks. However, the McKinney-Vento Act does require immediate enrollment even if families have missed deadlines, and it does require removing barriers to enrollment and retention in school. In the mask example, that means providing the student with a mask.
If a parent or unaccompanied youth seeks enrollment in an in-person class, I would ask about opportunities to create more space for the student. I have spoken with liaisons in schools who are doing just that– they can make space for an additional student and maintain necessary social distancing, perhaps even opening an additional classroom. Students experiencing homelessness frequently struggle with distance learning, even more than other students, due to the instability, crowding, and often danger of their living situations. These challenges compound issues such as lack of computer literacy, technology, sufficient internet, and electricity. In-person learning may be the only way for them to “enroll” in school, which the McKinney-Vento Act defines as “attending classes and participating fully in school activities.” Ensuring immediate enrollment, and removing barriers to enrollment and retention, are legal mandates. Many LEAs will be able to make space safely for McKinney-Vento students even after deadlines have passed. If the in-person learning option truly is full in terms of safety needs, and there are no options for expansion, then the LEA does not have to offer that option to a McKinney-Vento student. In that case, it would not be in the MV student’s best interest to be placed into an unsafe environment. That should be a rare situation– one we have not yet encountered.
If in-person learning is impossible, the student must be given immediate access to other available options and provided with the support needed to participate fully in those options. If distance learning proves not to work for the student, the LEA could look into other solutions, such as transporting the student to an in-person option that does have space.
If these issues become problematic in a particular LEA, the LEA could consider reserving some spots in all learning options for McKinney-Vento students who come into the LEA during the year, or want to switch during the year. It will be easier for the district to have the space available, than to have to look at adding spots or transporting to other options.