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How the Shutdown Is Starting to Impact Schools

Jan 13, 2019

By Denisa R. Superville

More than three weeks into what's now the longest federal government shutdown in history, school district officials are making plans to cope with the impacts on students, families, and their own operations should it drag on.

The current closure is different from earlier shutdowns because the agencies from which school districts receive critical federal dollars - chiefly the department of education - are funded during the partial shutdown.

But there is still a lot at stake for school districts if the shutdown persists for months - as President Trump had threatened during a meeting with Democratic congressional leaders earlier this month.

The biggest concern right now is the National School Lunch Program, which is administered through the Department of Agriculture and served more than 30 million children in 2016. The USDA said that it has enough money for reimbursements for the program, which provides free-and-reduced-price lunches to low-income children, through March.

What does this mean for school districts?

"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 afterschool program, maybe money for a summer program."

Districts may also have to dip into rainy day or emergency funds to come up with the money 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 74 of the nation's largest school districts.

Seventy percent of the 7.3 million students enrolled in the districts that are part of the council are eligible for the federal free-and-reduced-price lunch program.

Still, Simering said, "I don't think they are thinking, at least at this point, they are going to be put into that situation."

Even with the uncertainty on the horizon, state and district officials were taking steps in recent days to ensure that parents affected by the shutdown know that they can apply for the federal free-and-reduced-lunch program if they have fallen on hard times.

The Alexandria City school district in Virginia, which is just outside of Washington, sent notices to parents to encourage them to sign up for the program if they were impacted by the shutdown, including if they had been previously denied such benefits.

Across Maine, school districts are doing the same.

"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 circulated an application for impacted parents last week. The state advisory was sent out after several calls from districts asking for guidance on how to assist parents impacted by the shutdown.

"This is the best thing to do for the kids," Beesley said. "We have to put the kids first."

While Maine does not have as large a federal workforce as Washington or other areas of the country with military installations and bases, it has hundreds of federal employees who work for the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, the United States Coast Guard, in the national parks, and as border patrol agents, Beesley said.

The department produced the guidance with not just federal employees in mind, he said. When federal workers don't have money to spend locally that affects local businesses, including other parents who may work in restaurants or in service-oriented jobs, Beesley said.

"It's a ripple effect, so the kids are being affected all the way through," Beesley.

Helping Students and Families Cope With Financial and Emotional Stress

As nearly 800,000 federal workers missed a paycheck last week, the worry in some districts is less about the federal grants that may 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 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 installations, including Fort Sam Houston, Randolph Air Force Base, and Lackland Air Force Base, and about 7,000 military-connected students are enrolled in Northside ISD.

While the district has information on students whose parents are in the military, it's harder to ascertain how many students have parents and guardians who work as government contractors and are also not getting paid during the shutdown, Woods said.

Woods said principals, social workers, and teachers will be actively involved in trying to find those students and families who need both financial and emotional assistance.

The district will shift some of its resources - such as clothing closets and food pantries - to schools where large numbers of affected students are enrolled, he said.

"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. "It is going to take a collective effort to look for where the need really is."

Woods thinks the district is in a position to weather some cuts in federal funding this school year should that come to pass.

"Even if we had a loss of funding in some areas, we would be able to shift local dollars to support it - at least in the short term," he said.

Of course, he said, his answer could change if the stalemate continues for three or four months.

Reprinted from Education Week. To see the complete article go to