The ABA Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, the Center, and CWLA held a special member call on Wednesday, September 9, 2020, to discuss the education needs of children and families involved with child welfare during COVID-19.

In normal circumstances, foster students experience unique challenges in the education system, but now given the nature of the pandemic, are doubly disadvantaged. It has never been more important to address these challenges and provide foster students with the resources and opportunities they need to succeed in the education system. Further, there needs to be support for caregivers of foster students. Many foster parents and families are struggling to adapt to the circumstances of remote learning, especially if they are trying to meet other demands such as work or child care.

Several CWLA members expressed the importance of allocating more resources to families during this time. Specifically, there is a concern for the amount of technology available (e.g., laptops, tablets) for foster students and their access to the internet. Many families—including group homes—are being asked to share devices, which limits the amount of schooling these students receive. It is crucial that Local Education Agencies (LEAs), State Education Agencies (SEAs) and Child Welfare Agencies (CWAs) provide the necessary resources such that foster students can still succeed regardless of their physical learning environment.

The following tools developed by the Center outline some of the challenges and areas needing attention as students in foster care return to school:

Preparing for the New School Year During COVID-19: A Checklist for LEAs and Child Welfare Agencies 

This checklist highlights the important challenges facing the education system during COVID-19 and its effect on foster children and young adults. They suggest that the top priority for the education system as it adapts to online, in-person, or hybrid learning is information sharing amongst all stakeholders. The needs of children and young adults within the foster care system are already unique in normal circumstances, but the pandemic adds an extra layer of concern. To best mitigate any arising challenges, it is crucial that information is shared amongst local education agencies (LEAs), state education agencies (SEAs), and child welfare agencies (CWAs) so that children and young adults are provided the best resources to learn during these unique times. For example, the Center highlights the importance of all parties knowing who holds the education decision-making rights for students so that adjustments can be made efficiently and in the best interest of the student. They write, “only with good communication between the caseworker, caretaker, and schools can these changes be navigated smoothly.”

They also call attention to a few specific areas of concern, including food, access to the internet, mental health issues, abuse within the home, and active engagement in the (virtual) classroom. The Center urges LEAs, SEAs, and CWAs to ensure foster children and young adults have access to free school meals, even if they are learning virtually; access to technology, including reliable internet connection and devices; comprehensive guidance and support to reduce the number of children that are struggling or are disengaged from the classroom, which may include at-home visits; and monitoring cases of abuse given the new and changing circumstances of the pandemic—for example, teachers may have to be re-trained to identify indicators of abuse that are not normally identifiable. Importantly, they note that as we progress into this next stage of the pandemic, there is no blanket solution to ensure the high quality of educational services for foster children and young adults. Instead, individual decisions and adjustments need to be made for every student, and to do such requires an efficient system of communication and coordination.

Education During COVID-19: What Child Welfare Agencies Can Do to Help

The Center calls upon CWAs to support children and young adults in the foster care system as they adjust to changes in the education system. They make a note of four key areas where CWAs can most effectively protect the children and young adults: (1) partner with schools; (2) support the education and well-being of students; (3) directly support caregivers; and (4) address the needs of students in foster care with disabilities. During these challenging times, LEAs, SEAs, and CWAs will all have to work diligently to ensure that foster students are protected, and their educational attainment is prioritized. The Center continues to emphasize the importance of information sharing and collaboration amongst these agencies—and that CWAs do have a crucial role in fostering efficient communication.

Tip Sheet for School Districts Re: COVID-19 and Students in Foster Care

Similarly, school districts will have to make changes to their system to ensure that foster students receive the best educational experiences and resources possible during this time. The Center highlights three major areas to be prioritized: (1) collaborating with child welfare partners; (2) providing direct support to students and their caretakers; and (3) giving priority attention to students in foster care with disabilities. By developing a response to cover these three areas, SEAs and LEAs can work collaboratively with CWAs to properly address the changing needs of foster students during the pandemic.

Education Addressed in Court Proceedings during COVID-19

As communities adjust their education systems in response to the pandemic, the educational priorities of foster students are changing. This will require a shift in the way courts address the educational needs of children and young adults. For example, in-person school attendance rates of foster students were previously indicative of a student’s educational well-being. Now, courts overseeing child welfare cases must adopt a new approach to account for the blend of issues COVID-19 has presented—including distance learning. The Center suggests that court officials ask the following questions to understand educational needs during these times better:

  1. Can the child and family access resources to support education?
  2. What is the school offering to support distance learning?
  3. Does the caseworker, or others, need to take action to support the child’s education?
  4. Does the child have special education needs that require additional support?
  5. Is there a clear education decision maker (EDM) still in place?
  6. Is there strong communication with the school?

CWLA has been advocating for more funding through Title IV-B, Child Welfare Services (CWS) and an increase in the FMAP rate for Title IV-E programs to offer greater support to child welfare agencies, the families and students that have increased educational needs during the pandemic.