By NANCY J. SEMON, The Daily Sun, Dec 22, 2022.
The number of homeless students in Charlotte and Sarasota counties has increased as a direct result of Hurricane Ian, according to officials in both school districts.
“Hurricane Ian has impacted families with students,” Charlotte County Public Schools homeless education liaison Lisa Bratton said. “We have seen an increase in the number of homeless students this school year.”
Before Hurricane Ian, there were 252 students identified as homeless in 2022. As of Dec. 19, that number has more than tripled to 777.
Those who became homeless as a direct cause of Ian numbered 483, while 294 students were homeless due to other causes, Bratton said.
Compared to Dec. 16, 2021, 311 students were identified as homeless. By the end of the school year 2021-22, 494 students were identified as homeless.
Sarasota County Schools grants supervisor Tara Konrardy said there were 750 homeless students last year.
Konrardy spoke on behalf of Ellen McLaughlin who heads the Schoolhouse Link program which serves children who are homeless or in transition. The increase “is a direct result of the hurricane,” she said.
“There are 600 students at the halfway mark who will likely double the homeless count,” Konrardy said.
The School District of DeSoto County did not respond to a request for information about its homeless student population.
Under the Florida McKinney-Vento program, state educational agencies must ensure that each homeless child has equal access to free public education, including preschool.
Konrardy said homelessness could mean a child and their family is doubled up with another family, living in an RV that’s not by choice, or living in a tent, car, motel, abandoned building, or at a campground due to loss of housing.
The largest population of homeless students are those who have doubled up with a relative or friend as a result of financial hardship, Konrardy said.
Programs for homeless students in both counties try to keep homeless students at their former schools, she said.
She said if a student in Port Charlotte is displaced to North Port, transportation would likely be provided to take the child over the county line, and vice versa for a North Port student who was displaced to Port Charlotte.
She said it is important for the displaced child’s school, teachers and friends to stay consistent.
But it’s not always possible.
If a kindergartner from Port Charlotte is displaced to northern Sarasota County, and the commute is about an hour one way, it wouldn’t be feasible or good for the child to be transported that distance, she said.
The lack of affordable housing “is one of the top concerns,” she said.
“We live in a generous community,” Konrardy said.
She pointed out a network of partners, programs and foundations help families stay housed. But there are those who do fall through the cracks.
“One of our commitments is keeping kids in school,” Konrardy said. “This is our highest priority.”
Image Credits: Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla., on Aug. 10. (Chris O'Meara/AP)