AUSTIN (KXAN) — The latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Education show more than 231,000 Texas public school students experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year. That number increased by more than 50% from the previous school year of 2016-2017.

Those with the nonprofit Texas Appleseed believe the numbers are much higher now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The number of students experiencing homelessness is always an underestimated number and under counted in Texas,” said Brett Merfish, the nonprofit’s director of youth justice. “We know that with natural disasters that number rises quickly, and also with economic downturns, so we know that there are students out there experiencing homelessness at a greater number than before COVID.”

Thursday, Texas Appleseed will offer a free webinar to discuss the newest school requirements, resources and support for students experiencing homelessness. Merfish said the webinar is primarily for homeless education liaisons, but encourages the public to log on and watch.

“It would help them know what resources do exist,” Merfish said.

Merfish said identifying students who may be experiencing homelessness, or at risk of homelessness, is one of the biggest hurdles they face.

“It’s always a challenge to identify homeless students,” she said. “There’s a stigma to being called homeless.”

Merfish said it can be even harder to do during the pandemic, “because of the fact that they’re not coming to school.”

For one Austin mom who spent five months bouncing from couch to couch with two little ones, her children’s school was her sanctuary.

“Being able to have your kids go to school is your little break to figure other stuff out,” she explained.

The mom of two wishes to remain anonymous after leaving an abusive relationship. At present, she has an apartment thanks to the nonprofit LifeWorks. She said by having that stability, it will allow her to help her children with virtual learning. But looking back, she said she can’t imagine how she would juggle her children’s education and finding a place to sleep.

“It would be hard to balance all that,” she said.

“That’s why we have to identify the kids that are struggling,” Merfish explained. “It’s hard to keep the continuity of education and that continuity when you’re hopping around from house to house so they’re really at a disadvantage.”

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, all public schools, charter schools and education services centers are required to have a homeless education liaison.

At Austin ISD, the Project HELP program provides a number of services for children in need. The district is able to help with things like enrolling in school, participation in school activities and transportation to and from school.

During this time of COVID-19, AISD officials said they’ll work to identify homeless students and families.

In 2019, state lawmakers passed bills that recognized the challenges this population of students faces.

Lawmakers passed a bill that takes into account whether a student is homeless before taking any discipline action. They also eliminated out-of-school suspension for students experiencing homelessness in almost all instances. Texas Appleseed said this law keeps students from being kicked out of school for minor school misbehavior.

Another bill allows students to use their school or shelter address in an effort to obtain documents they may need like birth certificates or driver’s licenses. The hope is to eliminate any barriers students may face when attempting to apply for housing, employment or enroll in school.