K-12 Education and COVID-19 – Part IV – School Services


While the primary function of the K-12 system is to provide students with an education, schools do more than just provide educational instruction. Schools provide food services for students, provide English language services for students for whom English is not their first language, and help students navigate getting an education while homeless. In Part IV of our series, The Wheeler Report spoke with representatives from three different school districts about additional services students need.

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act guarantees educational rights and supports for students experiencing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children and youth as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.

According to a report released January 2020, “The number of homeless students enrolled in public school districts and reported by state educational agencies (SEAs) during school year (SY) 2017-18 was 1,508,265. This number does not reflect the totality of children and youth experiencing homeless, as it only includes those students who are enrolled in public school districts or local educational agencies (LEAs). It does not capture school-aged children and youth who experience homelessness during the summer only, those who dropped out of school, or young children who are not enrolled in preschool programs registered by LEAs.” That is an 11% increase over the previous year. The Wisconsin DPI website shows that 18,854 homeless students were enrolled in Wisconsin in the 2017-18 school year. While that is down from the high of 19,663 in 2012-13, it is up considerably from the 5,354 students in 2003-04.

Milwaukee Public School System Addresses Homelessness

Milwaukee Public School (MPS) School Social Work and Transition Services Manager Dena Radtke and Homeless Education Program Coordinator Shoshanah Bruesewitz spoke about the Milwaukee student homeless population. MPS has approximately 77,000 students and this year they had 5,008 students who were identified as homeless. The district sees an increase of 8-10% annually.

MPS trains everyone in the district on ways to identify students who may be or become homeless. Teachers are trained on how to identify homeless students. The training includes understanding certain wording and identifying red flags. The central staff is trained in identifying red flags when enrolling students or when students/families contact the district about moving schools. The school social workers or the school homeless coordinators work with and talk to families and determine if they are eligible for services. Additionally, the school district works closely with community partners to help identify students who are homeless, or ones that may become homeless. While some of these students/families may not qualify HUD and federal programming, the definitions and qualifications are different under the McKinney-Vento rules.  

Homelessness creates barriers to education for youth. Students experiencing homelessness often lack the basic resources like a place to live, food, and clothing. All items that impact their ability to attend or succeed in school. Students may lack immunization records or other needed documents to enroll in school. Students may not have school supplies and may not have transportation to access school. MPS works diligently to remove barriers to school access for homeless students, including helping students maintain their school of origin.

Unlike students who are in out-of-home care, homeless students must be reidentified at the start of every school year. A school district’s out-of-home care students are identified and stay on services until they are removed from the lists, but homeless student numbers reset to zero every year and schools work to touch base with families to see if services are still needed, and to identify new homeless students. The school year technically starts on July 1, so the MPS homeless coordinator will work through the remainder of the summer to touch base with families to identify those students who will need services. Bruesewitz said identifying students has been harder for this year’s spring semester and for the summer because the students are not in the classroom and the teachers and staff do not have “eyes on the students.” Radtke said the pandemic eviction moratorium may have helped students this spring since they were able to stay at their current location, but that could all change now that the moratorium is ending. Furthermore, the increased unemployment due to the pandemic may negatively impact students leading to an increase in students needing homeless services going forward.

Radtke and Bruesewitz said student homelessness is a complicated issue, but MPS does a good job of serving the needs of those students. Radtke said, “It’s complicated. This is a group of students that face barriers that impact them academically and socially. There is so much happening in their lives. There is not a lot of funding, it’s almost unfunded. It’s expensive, but it’s the right thing to do. There’s an enormous cost with helping them. There is definitely a stigma, and in reality it is not the kids’ fault they are homeless. Different people face different things. We don’t judge them, we offer them services. We want our kids to be safe and supported.”

Food Services during COVID-19

Menasha School District Superintendent Chris VanderHeyden and the Menasha Joint School District Director of Business Services Brian Adesso spoke about providing meals to students in the Menasha area. The Menasha Joint School District has approximately 3,400 students. In February, the daily count for breakfast was 1575, and the daily counts for lunch were 1989. The percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch has increased from 39% to 63% in the past 12 years.

Prior to Covid-19 closing the schools, the district offered in-classroom breakfasts for students. The elementary schools had four choices for lunch – one cold option and three hot options. Middle schools had 6-7 options and some customization, and the high school had 10-15 options and made to order items. Additionally, the high school had a café which was open all day long so students could get food outside traditional meal service hours. The school district also provides what they refer to as a ‘supersnack’, which is available to students after school. The school worked to ensure they are not interrupting family meal time, but understands the nutritional needs students may have.

One advantage the Menasha Joint School District had when they closed was they had already been serving breakfast in the classrooms so they had supplies for food delivery; paper plates/bowls, cups, utensils, etc. When the announcement came on Friday that schools would close the staff met immediately over the weekend to plan ahead for food service. The students were not yet on spring break, so the school took the opportunity to prepare meals that students would be able to take home on that next Tuesday before schools closed. Once schools were closed and students were gone, the school provided lunches and take home breakfasts each day. The school provided information on their website, and different locations had different menu items. Families could come and pick up at one of three school locations. The school also had trucks which were placed in strategic locations in the district for pick up, and a small number of families that had no transportation had meals delivered directly to their homes.

One challenge the school district had was the school freezers were filling up because the commodity deliveries continued even though students weren’t in school. Those commodities include things like fruit, vegetables, meat, and grains. At first the schools were able to use some commodities, but the families were getting tired of the limited varieties. The Menasha school district worked out an ‘exchange’ program with school districts in the area where they would exchange things between schools to provide more variety. This could include things like chicken patties for corn dogs.

Another issue for schools was milk. While the schools provided milk for each student and each meal, the delivery method was difficult for families. The schools are provided milk in pint containers, and a family getting meals for 3-4 kids could mean a crate of milk. Families said they simply did not have the room for a crate of milk in their refrigerators so milk was being dumped. While the school worked to find alternatives and tried to get milk delivered in larger sizes which families could easily store, they were not able to get anything other than pints.

When the shutdown first started the school district was providing around 850 breakfasts and 850 lunches per day through their pickup program. Furthermore, the school provided weekend meals because they knew the needs in the district warranted providing them.

VanderHeyden said they thought they knew their students, but emphasized you don’t get the whole picture of the students and families lives until you see the lines of cars in the parking lot to pick up food. He said the image impacted the staff and really highlighted the true need in their community. VanderHeyden said it was an emotional moment for the staff.  

Going forward the school district is working on what they will be doing to maintain a high-quality food program while providing the least amount of risk for everyone. Adesso said there are things to take into consideration, like how meals will be distributed since they want to avoid large groups of students together at one time. Adesso said they have been working to secure additional single use supplies for meals, but said his advice for other school districts is if they haven’t started looking at that yet they need to because there will be a surge in demand and they will want to have those supplies when school starts. Adesso said there are considerations around garbage disposal and how classrooms will deal with food in the classrooms.

Both Adesso and VanderHeyden said staffing could be an issue in the fall, and delivery to high risk students or students who are at home. VanderHeyden said they learned about the need for flexibility and agility for their staff going forward. While most food delivery staff generally work in one building, they have learned that everyone needs to be cross-trained in all areas of service and in all the different schools. He said that includes having staff trained to help in areas they may not have before.

English Learning Students

English Language Learners, or ELLs, are students who have difficulty with reading, writing, speaking or comprehending in English within the academic classroom setting. School boards are required to identify potential ELL pupils within the school district as part of the enrollment processing using a home language survey and department-approved English proficiency assessment. School boards identify pupils who meet any of the following criteria:

  • Pupils who communicate in a language other than English.
  • Pupils whose families use a language other than English.
  • Pupils who use a language other than English in daily non-school surroundings.

D.C. Everest School District Superintendent Kris Gilmore said her district has approximately 6,000 students, with around 400 students receiving ELL services. While the district’s highest ELL service need is Hmong, they are seeing an increase in Spanish speakers and in any given year can provide services in as many as 20 different languages.

Gilmore said when thinking about students with ELL services it is important to think about the fact that these students are bilingual. These students are general education students who need additional support services to better understand English and put things into context. When a student learns something new, they do so based on their prior knowledge. ELL services help provide the student with the context and the awareness to understand an issue by providing them with the background knowledge and cultural awareness they may need. For many students, the biggest barriers can be the academic vocabulary. For example, a student with ELL needs may have a hard time learning a science subject if they do not understand the vocabulary and background information that helps the student put the topic into context.

For some students the barriers may be that their parents do not speak English. Students succeed when parents are engaged in their education, but if a parent can not understand or assist in a student’s schoolwork it can be difficult for them to be engaged. ELL services can help provide an opportunity for parents to get involved in their student’s progress or needs. To help with this during the pandemic, the D.C. Everest School District created a bilingual hotline. Families can call the hotline and speak with someone who speaks their language who could help them understand the information or assignments being sent home. The Hmong language has historically been an oral language, so a simple document which translates everything from English to Hmong may not be helpful since some Hmong parents may not read written Hmong.

The school district has a large summer school program and right now they are working on a plan for August. Gilmore said they want to provide some face-to-face and are reaching out to families, especially in the transition years like kindergarten, new middle school students, new junior high and new high school students. The district is focusing on developing relationships with students and families as they move to a new school, so they are prepared for the first days of school. Gilmore said, “It’s about relationships first. Taking care of families. The learning won’t happen if we don’t take care of our students.” Gilmore stressed that teachers are checking on students with ELL services daily making sure they have what they need, that they understand where to get what they need, and addressing issues like food security for those families that may need them. Gilmore said the school district has a Hmong liaison person who helps the families by encouraging the use of videos to transmit information and helping families navigate community resources.

Gilmore said they district has always believed they were good at communication but learned that in an event like this you can always be better. She said they learned that to engage the families in their student’s lives they need to meet them where they are at. She said the district focuses on teaching the parents the ‘why’ behind what they are doing in school which is why the communication with families is so important. Gilmore said many people think about school being the same as it was when they went to school. She emphasized it is not and that students today are learning more about engaging with technology and higher-level thinking so they are career and college ready.

Gilmore offered one piece of advice saying, “You don’t know unless you ask.” Gilmore said schools need to ask families what they need and what they want because assumptions of what they need may not always been right.