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Schools scramble to feed students after coronavirus closures

School lunch

ELK GROVE, Calif. — Kiyana Esco needs free school lunches and breakfasts to feed her six children. But with schools shutting down over coronavirus concerns, she’s scrambling to pick up the meals, care for her kids and keep her job.

Esco, a single mother who was just promoted to manager at a Dollar Tree, fears she’ll be fired because she can’t work following school closures in Elk Grove, the fifth-largest district in California. She’s among the parents who are relying on school leaders as they look for ways to keep millions of America’s poorest children from going hungry.

While schools across the U.S. close their doors to try to prevent the spread of the new virus, they’re cobbling together arrangements for grab-and-go lunch bags or setting up delivery routes. Congress is considering making it easier for school meals to be passed out at places like food banks as schools shut down in states including Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, Virginia, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, and South Dakota, and in major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Even though most patients infected with the virus have only mild or moderate symptoms such as a fever or cold, school closures are widely accepted as a key way to slow the spread.

Some large districts, including New York City, were open for now, with concerns over their mission to provide free or reduced-cost meals to hundreds of thousands of students from lower-income families.

But others, like Los Angeles and San Diego, which had held out on closing for the same reasons, on Friday announced they would close.

“There is evidence the virus is already present in the communities we serve, and our efforts now must be aimed at preventing its spread,” Los Angeles Superintendent Austin Beutner and San Diego Superintendent Cindy Marten said in a joint statement.

The urgent decisions have left schools and cities scrambling to figure out how to make sure students don’t go hungry. Local officials have been publishing lists of sites where meals will be distributed within their counties and cities.

“It’s been extremely stressful,” said Michelle Price, a school administrator who oversees 29 districts in Washington state. “We haven’t dealt with anything like this, so we’re doing as we’re learning.”

In the U.S., more than two-thirds of the 31 million students who regularly eat school lunches, or 22 million, depend on a free or reduced-price school lunch as a main source of their daily nutrition, according to the School Nutrition Association.

The U.S. Agriculture Department oversees food programs in schools, but it has restrictions on how students can get their subsidized meals. Advocates and states are pressing the agency to ease some rules, but USDA leaders say it’s up to lawmakers to loosen eligibility.

Several measures now pending in Congress would offer a nationwide waiver so school meals can be offered in a wide variety of settings, such as food banks, and allow the USDA to grant waiver requests expanding eligibility even if they resulted in added costs to the government.

The coronavirus aid package being negotiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Trump administration Friday was expected to give USDA authority to allow states to provide emergency food stamp assistance to families whose children could miss out on free or reduced-price meals if schools are closed. Under the current proposal, the child’s school must be closed for no less than five consecutive days for families to be eligible.

Meanwhile, states and school districts pushed forward with their own plans.

Some states, like Oregon, obtained federal waivers to allow districts to distribute grab-and-go meals to lower-income students, or provide other assistance such as grocery store gift cards.

Seattle Public Schools set up tents to provide meals outside the first two schools it closed earlier this week. But after canceling classes at all 104 campuses Wednesday, the 55,000-student district won’t be able to set up dozens of sites for sack lunches for all schools until Monday, spokesman Tim Robinson said.

In nearby Northshore School District in Washington state, officials also have been using school buses to deliver meals to homes, providing the service in limited cases when families are unable to travel.

In Phoenix, where multiple districts announced they would close for at least two weeks, local food banks that stepped up when “Red for Ed” protests shuttered schools in 2018 prepared to again fill the void.

United Food Bank, in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, handed out emergency food bags Friday morning at its weekly “help yourself” distribution event.

Spokesman Tyson Nansel said he saw a noticeable uptick in demand for the bags of milk, frozen meat, green peppers, fruit, canned soup and ramen. The event normally takes place in a warehouse, but gloved volunteers instead gathered outside and loaded the food into recipients’ cars.

“We just had a lot of people who were very grateful we were doing it today,” Nansel said. “I think they were worried just going to the store.”

In the Coxsackie-Athens Central School District in New York, superintendent Randy Squier said officials are working out scenarios and options depending on federal assistance to offer “meals on wheels” with breakfast and lunch delivery to its 1,300 K-12 students at school bus stops, drive-through pick up at schools, and possibly food service in its school cafeterias if classes are canceled.

Parents are left trying to figure out how to get food, and worried about how long the situation could last.

“This doesn’t calm down until May, right?” said Sophia Saelee about the outbreak. On Tuesday afternoon, she was among dozens of parents who picked up meals for their kids from Valley High School south of Sacramento in Elk Grove, where the school district was one of the first in the nation to close down Monday because a student’s family tested positive for the virus. A day later, schools there began offering drive-thru breakfast and lunch giveaways at a dozen campuses, handing out more than 2,100 meals.

Saelee said her schedule wasn’t interrupted because she works in the evenings, but when she starts an office job next month, it could be trickier.

For Esco, it hasn’t been easy to juggle. She drove to Valley High School this week to pick up free meals, uncertain if she would lose her job because she was looking after her children.

“Let’s just say I didn’t expect it to turn my whole schedule upside down,” she said.

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