The U.S. Department of Agriculture will extend waivers from some school nutrition regulations through June 2022, the agency announced Tuesday.
That flexibility will allow schools to more easily serve students as they adjust schedules, seating arrangements, social distancing, and classroom cohorts to mitigate the risks created by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said. For some schools, that means serving schools outside of cafeteria settings, even as students learn in-person.
The waivers will also allow schools to continue distributing meals to students who are learning remotely without red tape that can make it logistically difficult to do so.
The USDA first issued meal waivers during massive school closures in spring 2020. Officials have extended them several times since.
The latest extension is another sign that the pandemic may continue to affect school operations well into the next academic year, even as a nationwide vaccination campaign leads many public officials to ease restrictions on schools and businesses.
“As we look ahead to next school year, we know that even as the nation recovers, school nutrition professionals will continue to face challenges in their work,” the agency said in a notice to states. “State and local officials are working hard to plan for the new school year, and [the USDA] recognizes that providing flexibility will support their extraordinary efforts.”
Through the extended waivers, schools can serve meals through the seamless summer option during the academic year. That will allow them to provide universal free meals to students without verifying their eligibility for federal programs. Federal officials also increased meal reimbursement rates for participating schools.
The agency will also allow schools to request waivers from nutrition standards and mandated meal patterns, which dictate levels of whole grains, salt, and fresh fruit and vegetables that must be served at certain grade levels over the course of a week.
In addition, the waivers will allow schools to distribute food offsite directly to parents, even if their children aren’t present when they pick up the meals.
The moves were praised by the School Nutrition Association, an organization that represents school food workers and had pushed for extended flexibility.
“School nutrition staff can focus on safely serving students without having to worry about meal applications or collecting payments,” SNA President Reggie Ross said in a statement. “Families struggling to make ends meet will know their children are nourished and ready to learn.”
The actions come on top of food aid created through the American Rescue Plan, which increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Benefits and extended the Pandemic EBT program that provides targeted nutrition assistance for families of children who qualify for free school meals.