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How to help decide how a foster youth returns to school?

The Play

Guidance on how to facilitate family team meetings to help decide whether a foster youth returns to K-12 school in person or via distance learning and under what conditions.

Who can do this

Child welfare agencies and case workers working with resource families with school age youth.

How to do this

1. Prepare for the family team meeting.

  • Have all the logistical elements in place to conduct the meeting, including videoconferencing, documents to be shared, the meeting’s purpose and desired outcomes, etc. If you have not already conducted a family team meeting during COVID-19, you can use the Children’s Research Center’s facilitation guidance to help. Make sure all parties are notified of the meeting.
  • Consult your state, tribal and local public health departments, school district, and other authorities (e.g., Governor, child welfare agency) for any guidance that has been set in place with regards to school reopenings and safety protocols. In particular, determine whether the school has communicated that it will implement any strategies to minimize risk of COVID-19 transmission.
    • If no guidance is available, contact the local child welfare authorities and/or school district to get more clarity on whether students are supposed to go back to school in-person or remotely.
  • Based on the available guidance, have an outline ready with specific questions and topics that will help guide the conversation during the family team meeting (see below).

2. Evaluate the health risks for the youth.

Discuss the health implications for the youth based on the schooling option at hand:
For in-person learning
For virtual learning
Evaluate the youth’s pre-existing health risks that present potential health issues if attending school in-person.
Determine if the risk is:
  • High (e.g., youth has underlying medical conditions that puts them at heightened risk for contracting COVID-19 or suffering greater health consequences due to COVID-19);
  • Medium (e.g., youth has health-related concerns that could be mitigated with the appropriate accommodations);
  • Low (e.g., youth does not have known COVID-related health risks).
If the youth is high risk, consider moving the young person to a school district that has online learning and that accepts transfers from out-of-district students. If said school district does not accept the request for transfer, discuss the following:
  • Is the youth’s medical condition stable?
  • Does the youth require close supervision?
  • Is the youth undergoing consistent health check-ups such that they have the medical attention they need in case their health is affected?
  • Would they have access to an on-campus nurse?
  • What protocols should be put in place in case something happens?
If the youth is medium risk, work with the young person and the resource family to ask the school administrators for the appropriate accommodations (e.g., having a different hall pass time than other students or being allowed to skip large events like pep rallies). If the school district denies accommodations, ask to move the youth to another school district with virtual learning due to health/disability.
If the youth is low risk, you should ask:
  • Does the young person have an accurate understanding on how to prevent infection? Have they been instructed on social distancing, not sharing items like food, and not engaging in physical contact?
  • Is the young person likely to respect these guidelines?
  • Will the youth be given (by the school, the child welfare agency, or the family) safety equipment such as hand sanitizer, face shields, gloves, etc.?
Evaluate if resource families are following COVID-19 precautions.
If caregivers are working outside of the home, assess if they abide by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for going to work.
Discuss what support might be needed to ensure compliance.

3. Discuss what the youth needs to thrive in their education.

Review the Individual Education Program (if any), case plan, and other relevant documents to understand the youth’s educational needs. Ask the young person’s feelings and thoughts about going to school in-person or learning virtually. These factors, in conjunction with state, county, and local guidance, should inform your discussion on what is best for learning:
For in-person learning
For virtual learning
Discuss how to ensure that the young person’s learning needs are supported while remaining safe during a pandemic. This might include:
  • Exploring how in-person guidance counselors and other support systems in school can be used safely.
  • Determining if extracurricular activities are available and appropriate, and what testing and protective equipment would be provided to access them.
  • Discussing how college applications might be impacted if participating in extracurriculars is too risky.
  • Thinking about how a hybrid approach that combines in-person and virtual learning can be implemented to minimize both isolation and COVID-19 infection risk.
Discuss what resources and supports will be needed to achieve a meaningful educational experience at home. This might include:
  • Thinking about any conditions the youth has that may impact their ability to efficiently learn from home (e.g., Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory processing disorder, anxiety).
  • Assessing if the youth requires accommodations to be able to use technology for remote learning (e.g., screen readers, captioning services, interpreting services, other auxiliary aids).
  • Brainstorming ways to facilitate peer engagement and extracurricular activities and staying connected with their school support system so as to meet the youth’s social and emotional learning needs.
  • Offering mental health resources and tutoring services to enable the young person to succeed in remote learning.
  • Discussing ways to ensure the youth’s technology usage remains healthy.

4. Assess the capacity of the resource family.

Discuss the capacity needed and resources available based on the schooling option at hand:
For in-person learning
For virtual learning
Assess the resource family’s capacity to support the young person attending school in-person. This might include:
  • Providing safe transportation to go to school.
  • Establishing a schedule for regular COVID-19 testing.
  • Establishing a routine for face covering/mask washing.
  • Identifying and remaining in close contact with the school administrators, guidance counselors, and other stakeholders that can inform the case workers and the foster families about the status of the school’s safety, the reality of the protective protocols in place, and how the young person is faring at school.
Discuss what resources and supports will be needed to provide the right environment for learning while attending school from home. This might include:
  • Assessing the technology available (internet access, bandwidth and speed, devices, etc.) at home, for the youth as well as everyone else in the home.
  • Creating the appropriate physical space for learning.
  • Thinking about whether child care might be needed if caregivers work outside of the home.
  • Discussing ways to support the resource family in upgrading the technology and physical environment to optimize it for learning, as well as providing child care.

5. Consult youth and make a joint decision.

Throughout the family team meeting, make sure to invite the young person to express their thoughts, preferences, and opinions. After all, the decisions that come from this meeting should be informed by the young person’s perspective. This also means being patient if they are unsure what their preferences are, and allowing them to change their mind and reassess as you discuss new factors at play. These are new and complex challenges for everyone to deal with, particularly young people, so it’s critical to create a safe space for youth to have agency over their educational experience.
Given all the previous factors, come to a consensus in the family team meeting in regards to the decision of having the youth pursue in-person or virtual learning, as well as all the relevant health risk mitigation strategies, learning needs and accommodations, and resources needed to support their educational attainment. Document any agreements and next steps to follow up accordingly.

6. Discuss the factors that would warrant revisiting your decision.

Once a decision has been made, discuss the factors that would trigger revisiting the decision in the future. For example:
  • What happens if COVID-19 laws and policies regarding school attainment change?
  • What happens if COVID-19 cases spike back up?
  • What happens if the youth is exposed?
  • What happens if the caregivers are exposed?
Schedule follow-up meetings every two to three months, but allow for ad hoc meetings to occur should anything come up as you monitor changes in laws and policies, as well as COVID-19 cases.


Youth, resource families, case workers, and other family team meeting participants will be able to help make an informed decision on the return back to school either in person or through distance learning, taking into consideration on local laws and policies, health risks, capacity, and what is best for learning.