BELOIT—The School District of Beloit is working to educate and counsel unaccompanied youth struggling with increased needs during COVID-19.

Those who want to donate restaurant gift cards for distribution to homeless families can mail them to Family Promise, 655 Bluff St., or Community Action, 20 Eclipse Center, Beloit. School District of Beloit Homeless Liaison Robin Stuht can be emailed at rstuht@sdb.k12.wi.us for more information and is willing to arrange pickup of food cards.

Restaurant gift cards can be helpful for youth who may be staying at a motel with Family Promise during COVID-19 or living in another situation without access to a kitchen.

This school year 547 students were identified as homeless—defined as not living in fixed, adequate or or regular night-time housing. Out of that number, 123 were identified as McKinney Vento students, or unaccompanied homeless youth not living with a parent or guardian.

Since COVID-19 nine additional students have been identified as homeless. Two were unaccompanied, and seven were defined as homeless, Stuht said.

Stuht said homeless advocates in each school have contacted every McKinney Vento student to assist with distance learning, getting wifi access and ensuring basic needs are met. Although there has been successes with student engagement and learning, students are struggling with many other unmet needs. Fortunately, Stuht said some generous people have stepped forward to help including “an exceptional community member” who has been shopping for families, getting food and hygiene products and making deliveries.

At the beginning of COVID-19, Stuht said students seemed OK as there were increased food stamps available and a halt on evictions. However, as shelter-in-place has continued, she said she’s seeing a mental health decline among students, with the district and other counselors being overwhelmed.

“We have an increase of youth with suicidal ideation, and our community counselors are reporting that they are overwhelmed with trying to keep up with counseling and check-ins of these students,” Stuht said.

Some of the homeless students already have trauma in their families in addition to being homeless.

“Some are staying in dysfunctional and unsanitary living conditions. Going to school was a break from this where they would receive love and care, meals and support with their education in person. The feedback from our homeless students is they would rather be in school. That is a place where they have the most social/emotional support and positive relationships with teachers and student service staff,” Stuht said.

Stuht commended the School District of Beloit staff for reaching out. Staff are not only trying to get kids to engage in their education online they are also providing alternative education such as packets for those struggling to do the online work.

A counselor at Beloit Learning Academy, Lexi Monroe, created a survey that was rolled out to all Beloit Learning Academy students in their life skills class to identify how they are feeling and identifying specific staff they would like to talk with or they could choose “anyone.” That survey is checked daily to reach out to the students that are asking for extra support. Other student service staff in other schools are doing similar activities to ensure homeless students still feel supported and connected.