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Coronavirus Bill With Job Protections From School Closures, Relaxed Meal Rules Advances

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 14, 2020 3 min read
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Legislation to provide emergency assistance in response to the novel coronavirus that passed the U.S. House of Representatives early Saturday aims to make it easier to provide students in need as a result of school closures with meals. In addition, the bill provides up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, as well as a guaranteed level of benefits, to certain employees “if the child’s school or place of care has been closed, or the child-care provider is unavailable” due to the virus.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, written by Democrats after negotiations with the Trump administration, includes proposals that earlier in the week that were introduced in the House education committee. One, the Maintaining Essential Access to Lunch for Students Act (MEALS) Act, would waive a requirement that prevents the U.S. Department of Agriculture from granting waivers to states from the federal school lunch law if those waivers would increase costs to the federal government; the legislation was introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.

Another, the COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Act, would allow school officials to serve meals in a variety of settings through a new nationwide waiver authority, and was introduced by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Rep. James Comer, R-Ky.

Separately, the Pandemic EBT Act would allow states to grant Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to students whose schools close for at least five days due to the coronavirus, and who would otherwise receive subsidized school meals. This bill was authored by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. (All five lawmakers are members of the House education committee, and Scott is the committee chairman.)

The bill’s provisions on the Family Medical Leave Act regarding school closures apply to “employees of employers with fewer than 500 employees and government employers, who have been on the job for at least 30 days,” according to a summary of the Family First legislation. It would also cover those who are following a requirement or recommendation to quarantine, and those caring for a family member who is following a requirement or recommendation to quarantine.

After two weeks of paid leave, the bill says, employees would be guaranteed a benefit of no less than two-thirds of their normal pay. These FMLA provisions would take affect no later than 15 days after the bill is signed into law.

Other provisions of the law include free coronavirus testing and expanded federal Medicaid benefits. It also provides $500 million in nutritional assistance for low-income mothers of young children and pregnant women who are laid off or otherwise lose their jobs as a result of the coronavirus.

The Agriculture Department has already provided waivers to many states to allow schools to serve food in “non-congregate settings” (in places other than cafeterias) and at school sites in order to provide easier access to students in need. Here’s the list of states that have been granted those waivers as of Saturday morning:

By the end of the work week, several states and the District of Columbia announced they were shutting down their public schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to official statements and media reports; holdouts included California and New York state.

Although many states were shuttering their schools for two to three weeks, new CDC guidance released Friday suggests that such relatively short school closures may not do enough to combat the virus. Longer closures, ranging from eight to 20 weeks, the agency said, could be significantly more effective on this front.

See Also: Education Week’s Map of Coronavirus and School Closures

President Donald Trump said “I fully support” the Families First bill in a late Friday tweet before the House passed by a vote of 360-40, with one lawmaker voting “present.”

The Senate is expected to vote on the package after it returns from recess Monday.

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