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The number of West Virginia public school students experiencing homelessness, as a federal law defines it, dropped last school year — at least according to data reported this week.

A state Department of Education report showed a drop to about 9,450 last school year, from 10,360 the year before. There were roughly 252,360 public school students statewide last school year, so homeless students made up roughly 4%. But Melanie Purkey, the statewide school federal programs officer, noted there might have been issues with the way schools reported this data to the department.

Although the Jefferson County school district’s public information officer said Thursday this wasn’t true, Purkey said “we found, in working with a new attendance director, that maybe they had some misunderstanding about definition, and were counting students that lived in trailer parks.”

She didn’t mention Jefferson by name when she presented the report to the state Board of Education on Wednesday. But the context made clear she meant that Eastern Panhandle county.

Schools are supposed to report to the department the number of children who fit the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act’s definition of homelessness. That definition, according to the state education department, includes not just children living in places like cars and tents, but also motels and, especially, children who are “doubled-up.”

Doubled-up, according to the report, means “sharing housing of other persons due to economic hardship, loss of housing or other reasons (such as domestic violence).” In each of the past three school years, about 87% of the state’s reported homeless children were living doubled-up; only about 3% were labeled “unsheltered,” the category that includes living in abandoned buildings, cars, campgrounds and “temporary trailers.”

But no McKinney-Vento homelessness definition considers just living in a trailer home to be homeless. Purkey said that, after correcting things, the county lost more than 400 homeless students last school year, compared to the year before.

The department’s report showed that Jefferson dropped from 1,210 homeless students to 790.

That was by far the biggest plunge statewide, yet Jefferson’s count remains West Virginia’s highest. No. 2 is Kanawha County, at 750, despite Kanawha, the state’s most-populous county, having three times Jefferson’s public school enrollment last school year.

Kanawha also has a significantly lower median household income, according to five-year U.S. Census estimates. Kanawha had the second-biggest increase in homeless students last school year, up 127, only topped by Cabell, which rose 133 to total 390 such students.

Jefferson schools public information officer Hans Fogle said, referencing attendance director Devon Pearrell, that “we were not made aware of any issues and she certainly did not count all students in trailer parks as homeless.”

“The vast majority of our homeless population is doubling-up due to the high cost of housing in Jefferson County,” Fogle said. As for the plunge in homeless students, he said, “hopefully, it’s because a lot of folks have improved their conditions ... but anything I say would be pure speculation.”

The other issue with the data, Purkey said, is the possibility that homeless students who were learning online amid the COVID-19 pandemic were undercounted. She said homeless students are tagged in a statewide data system when anyone at a school identifies that they qualify for homeless services, like clothing and field trip fee assistance, and those tags are counted in the department’s report.

“Those administrators have to reflip that tag when the new school year starts,” Purkey said. “And if some of those students were virtual and they were not coming and saying, ‘I still want the McKinney-Vento services, I’m still in this situation,’ some of those tags may have not been flipped in the new school year.”

Fogle raised another possibility: Virtual learning means fewer chances for a school transportation change request or an employee-student interaction to lead to discovery of student homelessness.

Purkey said the department has told counties that, if any students are still learning virtually, the counties should communicate with families to see if they still need these services.

She said general population loss also might have fed the apparent homeless student decrease.

Ryan Quinn covers education. He can be reached at 304-348-1254 or ryan.quinn@hdmediallc.com. Follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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