Washington – While only a few schools in Connecticut have shuttered so far because of the coronavirus, it’s likely many more will have to close down, at least temporarily, as the virus spreads across the state.
That has raised a number of issues in Congress, from what to do about students in kindergarten through 12th grade who depend on free school lunches to how districts can guarantee children continue to receive a good education online.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said this week that Congress could consider rebooting the Pandemic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or P-SNAP, as part of the stimulus package that lawmakers are negotiating this week.
The program was last used during the global H1N1 virus in 2009. It gives households with children who are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunch additional funds on an Electronic Benefit Transfer card when schools are closed.
Connecticut allows children to qualify for food stamps and free school lunches if they earn no more than 185% of the federal poverty level, or $47,638 a year for a family of four.
The number of Connecticut students receiving free or low-cost meals has been rising steadily and was 228,535, or more than 40 % of the student population in the 2019-2020 school year.
Congressional Democrats are pressing the U.S. Department of Education to allow students to take home several meals from their schools, or have school meals delivered.
There are other concerns about school closings, too.
Connecticut’s U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy joined other Democrats in writing to Education Secretary Betsy Devos about how she can ensure K-12 school lunch programs continue during a shutdown. Additionally, Democrats asked how schools using online learning can meet the needs of students without computers or access to the internet and how schools can guarantee students are receiving a high-quality education online.
The senators also asked DeVos about how schools will provide mental health services remotely and how students with disabilities would continue their education.
“We do not yet know the scale at which K-12 schools and (institutions of higher learning) across the country may need to close in order to help contain the spread of COVID-19, but we urge you to do everything you can to ensure you are continuing to prepare stakeholders for a variety of scenarios,” the senators wrote.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, also wrote DeVos on Wednesday, pressing the education secretary about the fate of students with disabilities during a school closure.
“How will you address access to remote learning opportunities for families with children with disabilities, including those living in low-income communities with limited personal and school-related resources?” DeLauro asked.
The issue of how to care for young children who no longer go to school is also a problem for many families whose jobs do not give them leave time.
Democrats in Congress are seeking to address that in a massive coronavirus relief bill that would also offer expanded unemployment insurance for affected workers and free coronavirus tests for the uninsured and underinsured.
President Donald Trump has also said he wants to provide leave time for hourly workers who do not have sick or family leave, but he has not provided details of his plan.
Two Connecticut school districts have closed this week because of concerns about student exposure to COVID-19. Region 14 public schools in Litchfield County said on Tuesday it would be closed through the end of the week and the Westport Public School system announced it would close its schools starting tomorrow “until further notice.”
Elementary schools in Stratford and New Haven have also closed following concerns that a student was exposed to the virus.
More closures are expected, even though Gov. Ned Lamont has so far not exercised his emergency powers to require school districts to shutter schools.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in the United States and around the world continue to grow.
The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared coronavirus a pandemic, signaling that health experts believe efforts should be focused less on containing the virus and more on stockpiling materials, getting hospitals ready to handle an influx of patients, and enacting social distancing policies.