Arlington Heights Daily Herald

Homeless students, to some extent, depend on trained school personnel to recognize the signs and symptoms of their precarious positions and steer them toward resources intended to help.

So, when tallies of homeless students dropped sharply in the first year of the pandemic, experts surmised that the grim realities of COVID-19 hadn’t improved the lot of so many children and teens.

Rather, it seems likely those students simply exited the system.

“We’ve lost track of them, which is the worst thing that can happen because then they’re kind of falling through the cracks and not getting the services that they need,” Tom Bookler, a regional homeless liaison in the North Cook Intermediate Service Center, told Daily Herald staff writer Katlyn Smith.

At a time when school boards are beset by distractions over the imagined dangers of face masks, here’s an urgent pandemic-related issue that deserves some genuine public concern.

The “homeless” designation sweeps in students who live in hotels or camps; sleep on others’ couches, floors or spare beds; move between shelters or live out of cars.

Under the law, known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, they can remain in their school even if the search for shelter takes them out of the attendance area and even if they lack the usual documentation involved in enrollment. The students qualify for transportation, meals, fee waivers and other support.

In 2018-19, 14,912 homeless students were in schools in suburban Cook, DuPage, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.

During the pandemic’s seismic changes, the count was down by 21%. Some students might have lacked internet, equipment, space or supervision to concentrate on studies. They might have gotten jobs or cared for siblings. COVID-19 illness or death might have left their families in crisis.

We can’t successfully put the pandemic era behind us if we fail to gather these students back in.