school cafeteria workers serving lunch to students

School Assistance and Free Lunches: Programs Born in the COVID Era

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In 2020, as COVID-19 outbreaks forced education online, it became painfully obvious how heavily many families depended on in-person schooling. Among the federal assistance programs originated in 2020–21 were a number specifically designed to bridge the gaps in low-income children’s educational access.

Now, with COVID vaccines and other precautions well-established, most schools are resuming full in-person education for the 2022–23 school year. And a new concern looms: will the return to traditional classes eliminate the need for most COVID-era-originated programs … or might it simply eliminate the programs while they’re still needed?

Educational access is particularly challenging for low-income families and for families where one or more members have disabilities—many of whom lacked financial and educational resources before the pandemic—and many of whom have cause for anxiety should recently established programs be discontinued.

Needs and Programs: Nutrition 

Among the needs regularly met by schools is one that few well-off families associate with education: the need for a square meal or two each day. Many inner-city neighborhoods live with, not shortage of food per se, but a shortage of healthy food. Where parents work long hours for low wages, time to buy and prepare food is limited. Often transportation is, too. So families rely on close-to-home options for their meals—in “food desert” neighborhoods where fast-food chains are more common than grocery stores or farmer’s markets, and where the majority of edible options are high in fat but low in fiber and vitamins.

This problem has long been partly remedied by federally funded programs that provide low-income students with free or reduced-cost lunches, and often breakfasts as well. During the summer, in-school meal programs were traditionally replaced by summer-food-service programs that served meals in unused school cafeterias or improvised public lunchrooms. After the COVID pandemic suspended public gatherings—including standard practice of requiring children to come in person for one meal at a time—the government enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided waivers for meals to be delivered directly to homes or picked up in batches that would last several days.

What if we lose the program? One shortcoming of traditional summer-meals programs was that they were limited to neighborhoods where at least half the student population qualified, leaving nothing for low-income families in high-income-majority neighborhoods. (Note that disability care expenses can reduce even relatively high incomes to poverty-level budgets.) COVID-era waivers eliminated that disadvantage, along with the disadvantages of exposing kids with sensory and mobility impairments to overcrowded conditions. It would definitely be in the best interests of universal health and education to keep waivers for 2023 and beyond.

Needs and Programs: Technology 

Before 2020, it was little known that some 19 million Americans lacked at-home online access or had only the dial-up kind, not the high-speed broadband needed to take full advantage of modern internet technology. Then came the pandemic and the mass closures of in-person schooling. By the middle of the 2020–21 school year, it was obvious that schools in poorer neighborhoods were suffering a co-pandemic of virtual absenteeism—not through any fault of schools or students, but because effective virtual attendance was technologically impossible to maintain. With every public building closed, schoolchildren’s only place for online connection was their own homes—and those without reliable technology were struggling to keep up, or giving up entirely.

The Federal Communications Commission responded with a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, used to install discounted high-speed internet service in qualifying households. (In late 2021, after a year of Emergency Broadband funding and almost 9 million successful applications, the Fund transitioned into today’s Affordable Connectivity Program.) Meanwhile, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 included an Emergency Connectivity Fund of over $7 billion to help schools and libraries purchase laptops, mobile hotspots, and other equipment to improve access to remote learning.

What if we lose the program? At time of writing, it remains unclear whether ECF funds will remain available beyond the 2022-2023 school year. While it might seem that the return to in-person learning should eliminate the need for hotspots at home, as long as there is homework there will be need for broadband service outside school premises. Effective modern education includes online access for research, review, and lesson-planning—a fact recognized by the FCC when they earmarked the Emergency Connectivity Fund for “educational purposes” in general. Helping lower-income students across the “digital divide” must remain a high-priority goal.

Needs and Programs: Socialization 

Socialization deserves mention because it is an essential part of human development, and because it is frequently considered by those implementing government programs. For example, organized social activities were a regular part of many traditional “summer lunchrooms.”

During the most isolated days of 2020, broadband-enabled virtual chat kept people in touch with the larger world; and it remains an important tool for supporting emotional and physical health. It’s now possible to keep extended family connected over long distances; to get medical advice while homebound; and–for kids with autism or other sensory-overload issues—to “warm up” for personal encounters before entering the full atmosphere of three-dimensional, five-sense contact.

The Future of Educational Support 

Since pandemic-fueled difficulties brought the needs of lower-income students to public attention, an increased number of local governments and private organizations are providing their own programs apart from federal funding. (Check out Comcast’s digital-access programs, and the list of exhibitors already lined up for October’s M-Enabling Summit.) It’s not yet clear how much COVID-era student assistance will remain indefinitely, but now that its value is widely known and experienced, the outlook is hopeful for public demand keeping these and similar programs active.


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