More than four weeks into the longest-ever federal government shutdown, school district officials in some communities are mobilizing to blunt the impacts on students, families, and their own operations.
Though the current closure hasn’t shuttered the agencies that funnel critical federal dollars to school districts—chiefly the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services—there’s still a lot at stake for districts if the shutdown drags on.
The biggest concern now is the National School Lunch Program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and served more than 30 million children in 2016. The USDA said it has enough money for reimbursements for the program, which provides free and reduced-price lunches to low-income children, through March.
If USDA runs out of money, it won’t necessarily mean children will go hungry, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
“No superintendent is going to deny a child lunch,” Ellerson Ng said. “What it means is that the superintendent is going to find money elsewhere, which means something else gets cut: maybe money for an after-school program, maybe money for a summer program.”
Districts may have to dip into emergency funds to pay for school meals if the shutdown goes beyond March, said Jeff Simering, the director of legislative services at the Council of the Great City Schools, the Washington-based organization that represents large districts.
Still, Simering said, “I don’t think they are thinking, at least at this point, they are going to be put into that situation.”
State and district officials are taking steps to ensure that parents affected by the shutdown know they can apply for the federal school meals program.
Maryland’s Prince George’s County school district set up a fund to raise money to cover school lunches for children of federal employees who aren’t being paid during the shutdown. The Alexandria, Va., district is encouraging parents to sign up for the program.
“It’s a whole new ground, which we don’t want to be on,” said Walter Beesley, the child nutrition director at the Maine education department, which is circulating an application for affected parents. The state took that step after several districts asked for guidance on how to assist parents hurt by the shutdown.
While Maine does not have as large a federal workforce as Washington or other areas of the country, it has hundreds of federal employees who work for the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, the U.S. Coast Guard, in the national parks, and as border patrol agents, Beesley said.
Several Washington-area school districts were recruiting furloughed federal workers to apply for substitute teaching jobs and other work.
Financial and Emotional Stress
As nearly 800,000 federal workers missed a paycheck the week ending Jan. 12, the worry in some districts was less about the federal grants that could be at stake and more about helping students whose parents’ finances have taken or will take a hit.
“Our biggest concern is the financial and emotional impact to kids and families,” said Brian Woods, the superintendent of the Northside Independent school district, the largest district in the San Antonio area. “That’s where we are better able to assist.”
The city is home to several military bases, and about 7,000 military-connected students are enrolled in Northside’s schools.
While the district has data on students whose parents are in the military, it’s harder to get information on students whose parents and guardians work as government contractors and are not getting paid during the shutdown, Woods said.
Principals, social workers, and teachers will be actively trying to find those students and families who need assistance, he said. The district will shift some resources—such as clothing closets and food supplies—to schools where large numbers of affected students are enrolled.
“That takes folks paying attention to kids’ needs and changes in the family dynamic and reaching out and saying to the parents ‘How can we can help?’ And these are the things we can offer to assist,’” Woods said.
Curtis Jones, the superintendent in Bibb County, Ga., has a similar worry about students, who may pick up on their parents’ anxieties and then take those stresses to school.
About 15 percent of the district’s students’ families work in the agriculture sector. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that farmers were not receiving federal payments meant to blunt the effects of tariffs the Trump administration placed on China, and some farmers may have been unable to apply for loans because local farm service centers were closed. Late last week, the White House said it would temporarily reopen some of the local farm offices.
“We have counselors, we have behavior specialists,” Jones said, “and we will make those available not only to the students, but we will also start looking at the impact on the families.”
The district may have to think about how it applies its discipline policy if student behavior can be traced back to what’s happening at home as a result of the shutdown, he said.
Despite the uncertainties, the superintendents and district officials interviewed by Education Week as the shutdown ground into its fourth week said they aren’t too worried yet about their own operations.
That’s not surprising given that the large federal grants districts rely on—such as Title I, which goes to schools serving large numbers of students in poverty, IDEA for special education, and Head Start—are housed in federal agencies that are currently funded.
“I think it just hasn’t reached a critical level for any of the programs that they are operating at this point,” said Simering.
In Onslow County, N.C., where Hurricane Florence did an estimated $125 million in damage, officials are watching cautiously.
Nearly 35 percent of the district’s enrollment is connected to the military, and about half of students are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals, though the district has been offering free breakfast to all students since last year’s hurricane.
The district received $14.2 million in federal grants last school year. And it’s unclear whether a protracted shutdown will affect its applications for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for storm damages. So far, no scheduled meetings had been cancelled or postponed, a district spokesman said.
Help for Families
In Great Falls, Mont., Superintendent Tammy Lacey is worried about how a prolonged shutdown could affect future funds the district generally receives for its Indian Education Program and through Impact Aid, which provides money to districts to compensate for the loss of property taxes because of federal activities like military bases. Though both programs are funded through the Education Department, the standoff in Washington concerns her.
“The uncertainty is causing us to wonder what those year-end processes are going to look like,” she said, “what the application processes are going to look like for next year, and if there would be the potential for us to discontinue or suspend some of the programs that we utilized federal funding for.”
Bob Sickels, who owns Kids After Hours, a before- and after-school program in 26 schools in Montgomery County, Md., is trying to help federal workers who aren’t getting paid. He’s offering a tuition waiver for federal employees whose children attend the program. Parents can repay the tuition, without late fees or interest, when they start receiving a salary.
“It was a wonderfully caring and humane thing to do,” said Stacy Rabkin, who is furloughed from her job at the Environmental Protection Agency. Her 6-year-old daughter is enrolled in Kids After Hours.
KAH, which costs about $500 a month for parents who use it five days a week, is Rabkin’s single largest monthly expense after her mortgage. About 3,500 children use the program and about 130 parents indicated they would take the tuition waiver, Sickels said.
Sickels said he can absorb the roughly $100,000 in tuition waivers each month for about two to three months. After that, he’s not sure.
“I’ve got to be honest, I think more with my heart than with my head; so, I didn’t actually sit there and do the math to say we can do this for three months or four months or six months,” Sickels said.
“I thought that at some point in time, someone is going to have to grow a brain in the government and solve this problem. ... I guess I am holding my breath just like everybody else.”
Staff writer Sarah Schwartz contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as Shutdown’s Impacts Starting to Trickle Down to Schools