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September 09, 2020 8 min read
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Backpedaling USDA Extends Waivers For Student Meals

The U.S. Department of Agriculture did some back-pedaling last week when it extended waivers from federal meal requirements for children through the end of this year.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue had initially told Congress that he would require schools to shift back to specified requirements of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, and that flexibility under those summer meal programs would lapse with the start of this new school year. Barely more than a week later, Perdue did an about-face.

The waiver extension will allow schools and community groups to continue feeding students with fewer restrictions than are typically in place under lunch and breakfast programs, and enable organizations that serve students meals in the summer months to continue doing so in the fall.

To justify his initial decision to revoke the waivers, Perdue said he believed Americans were a “generous people” and would help offer a variety of opportunities to provide children with meals, while the waiver extensions would represent a step toward a “universal meals program” not authorized or paid for by Congress.

That didn’t sit well with school officials and others, including GOP members of Congress. They had argued that food insecurity brought about by the pandemic made such flexibility for schools all the more essential. They also said the fact that many schools are starting the school year with all-remote instruction made it more important for them to provide students with meals quickly and easily.

Perdue expressed the agency’s new sentiment in announcing the waiver extension. “This extension of summer program authority will employ summer program sponsors to ensure meals are reaching all children—whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually—so they are fed and ready to learn, even in new and ever-changing learning environments.”

The extensions will last until Dec. 31, “or until available funding runs out,” the USDA said. Perdue had previously extended other waivers from meal requirements initially granted to help schools and families deal with the pandemic.

Those waivers were first extended until Aug. 31, then were extended again and are now in affect until June 30, 2021.

Private and Charter Schools Get COVID-19 Relief Aid From Places Traditional Public Schools Can’t Tread

Here’s some math to ponder: About 85 percent of K-12 students attend traditional public schools, recent federal data show, while 9.5 percent go to private schools, and 5.2 percent are in charter schools.

Add to that this information: When the federal government dished out coronavirus relief aid to the K-12 sector, private and charter schools got nearly half the money that public schools did. And public schools have to share some of that money with private schools.

That’s what the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget turned up for a report released last week.

Private schools as well as charter schools have received $6 billion in Paycheck Protection Program aid in the form of forgivable loans, says the study by the nonprofit group. Meanwhile, states and K-12 school districts got roughly $13 billion in separate aid under the CARES Act. Traditional public schools are not eligible to apply for PPP money.

What’s more, the CARES Act says charter schools that function as local education agencies are also eligible to receive subgrants under the $13 billion in the law for K-12 schools, just like tradi-tional school districts

Charter school skeptics say the PPP loans underscore how the schools straddle the line between being public and private entities in ways that traditional public schools cannot and charters are taking advantage of money that should instead be going to small businesses and other entities as the economy struggles.

The CARES Act also included $3 billion in education aid for governors to allocate to K-12 and higher education. At least a few governors have directed some of that money to private K-12 schools

Just how much of the $13 billion in CARES relief must be set aside for private school students is up in the air. That fight is ongoing in the courts.

Overall, the group says COVID-19 relief legislation has provided $42 billion to the education sector, including K-12 and higher education. Just over hal—55 percent—has gone to public schools in both K-12 and higher education.

Fear of Deportation Grips Latino Students, Leading To Mental-Health Problems and Altered Lifestyles

When President Donald Trump took office in 2017, immigration advocates and school officials braced for the prospect that he would undertake unprecedented immigration-enforcement measures that could upend the lives of millions. Turns out, they were right.

Nearly four years later, the nation’s Latino schoolchildren are bearing the mental and psychological brunt of the president’s campaign to curtail immigration: A majority of Latino high school students who were part of a study of communities in two states fear that someone close to them could be arrested and deported, a new Migration Policy Institute study reveals.

More than half the students surveyed in both Rhode Island and Texas, states with vastly different immigration-enforcement climates, reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder at levels significant enough to warrant treatment. The students who feared immigration enforcement most acutely and changed their behaviors to avoid detection, reported the most significant challenges with mental health.

To support their Latino students, schools in both states took similar steps: ensuring students had access to counseling and therapy services, making public statements in support of students and their families, and amending discipline policies to reduce the potential for interactions with school police officers

Researchers from the Migration Policy Institute, the University of Houston, and Rhode Island College analyzed results from a survey of Latino students in several Rhode Island cities and in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, examining the links between immigration enforcement and the related fears and mental health of Latino youths enrolled in 11 Latino-majority high schools during the 2018-19 school year.

ICE made more arrests in Harris County in fiscal 2018 than any other county in the country. Rhode Island, by comparison, has a relatively low level of Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity and has policies restricting local law-enforcement cooperation with the federal agency

Overall, one-third of students in the survey feared that ICE agents would come for them, including 12 percent of students born in the United States. Nearly as many, 30 percent, reported taking extreme measures to dodge potential deportation, including avoiding such activities as driving, getting medical checkups, attending religious services, or taking part in after-school activities. They took alternative routes to school and stayed home more often.

Flint, Mich., Staff Go Door to Door to Find Missing Students

This is an above-and-beyond story about a district for which the word “beleaguered” could be called an understatement.

Staff members in Flint, Mich., have been making house calls to track down students who have not been participating in online instruction.

Their efforts are paying off. In recent weeks, the staff has been able to find about 1,200 students. The schools were down 2,000 students when classes began Aug. 5, Assistant Superintendent Kevelin Jones said. The district expects to have about 3,800 students this year.

“That had never happened to us before, and so we said, ‘We need to do something. We need to connect,’” Jones said.

The district also has been unleashing robocalls and using social media to contact families. And it had more people manning the phones as more parents have been calling in.

“We’re out here making our best effort making sure [parents] know we’re here to deal with any barriers you have in getting your child in school and whatever we can do to help doing that,” he said.

“Understanding these are unprecedented times,” Jones said, the district will continue efforts to find students in the following weeks if necessary.

Times have been tough in the city. School enrollment has dropped precipitously in the past 15 or so years. More than half its children live in poverty. The automaker GM still has a presence there but not like it once did. And on top of all that, starting in 2014-15, Flint families drank, bathed, and cooked in their homes with lead-contaminated water for 17 months before the problem was discovered and the water supply shut off.

Lead is dangerous, especially for children, and can result in learning disabilities. At present, 1 in 4 students is eligible for special education services—numbers that are likely to rise as the youngest children ex-posed to the water reach school age. A recent settlement with the state is expected to provide significantly more money to beef up special education services.

Bus Drivers Walk Out Over Student Safety; Firing Threatened

A Mississippi school district said it will fire nearly half its bus drivers who walked off the job in protest of a reduction in work hours, pay—and the safety of students.

Drivers said the Columbus school system is threatening the safety of the children they carry.

“We’re still upset about our pay and how we were treated,” said Renarda Dent, one of the drivers. “Right now, our main concern is safety. They don’t have enough drivers to do the routes safely. There’s no way to social distance when they’re doubling and tripling routes.”

Dent also said the district isn’t correctly cleaning the buses.

On Aug. 24, 21 of the district’s 46 drivers refused to drive their routes, leaving parents and the district scrambling to arrange transportation.

Assistant Superintendent Glenn Dedeaux said he believes the district can adequately operate its routes with the remaining 25 drivers.

But drivers said doubling routes means students will likely be two to a seat with every row taken, raising the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“There’s no way you’re going to social distance when you’re putting two or three routes together,” Dent said.

The Columbus district opted out of a contract with a bus company and started its own transportation department this fall, hiring the company’s former drivers.

School board members approved a revised salary schedule, based on a schedule that reduces driver hours from six to 4.5 per day and a four-day week.

None of the drivers said they could complete their routes in that amount of time. Dedeaux said 4.5 hours was just an average, and drivers would be paid for all work

Briefly Stated Contributors: Associated Press, Corey Mitchell, and Andrew Ujifusa. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 2020 edition of Education Week

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