ELK GROVE, Calif. – Kiyana Esco needs free school lunches and breakfasts to feed her six children. But with schools shutting down over coronavirus concerns, she's scrambling to pick up the meals, care for her kids and keep her job.
Esco, a single mother who was just promoted to manager at a Dollar Tree, fears she'll be fired because she can't work following school closures in Elk Grove, the fifth-largest district in California. She's among the parents who are relying on school leaders as they look for ways to keep millions of America's poorest children from going hungry.
While schools across the U.S. close their doors to try to prevent the spread of the new virus, they're cobbling together arrangements for grab-and-go lunch bags or setting up delivery routes. Congress is considering making it easier for school meals to be passed out at places like food banks as schools shut down in a growing list of states that included Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, Virginia, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico and South Dakota.
Major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., also announced school closures.
Even though most patients infected with the virus have only mild or moderate symptoms such as a fever or cold, school closures are widely accepted as a key way to slow the spread.
“There is evidence the virus is already present in the communities we serve, and our efforts now must be aimed at preventing its spread,” Los Angeles Superintendent Austin Beutner and San Diego Superintendent Cindy Marten said in a joint statement.
The urgent decisions have left schools and cities scrambling to figure out how to make sure students don't go hungry. Local officials have been publishing lists of sites where meals will be distributed within their counties and cities.
In the U.S., more than two-thirds of the 31 million students who regularly eat school lunches, or 22 million, depend on a free or reduced-price school lunch as a main source of their daily nutrition, according to the School Nutrition Association.
Several measures now pending in Congress would offer a nationwide waiver so school meals can be offered in a wide variety of settings, such as food banks, and allow the USDA to grant waiver requests expanding eligibility even if they resulted in added costs to the government.
Late Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a deal with the Trump administration for a coronavirus aid package from Congress that would give assistance to families whose children could miss out on free or reduced-price meals if schools are closed.
Meanwhile, states and school districts pushed forward with their own plans.
Seattle Public Schools set up tents to provide food outside the first two schools it closed earlier this week. But after canceling classes at all 104 campuses Wednesday, the 55,000-student district won't be able to set up dozens of sites for sack lunches for all schools until Monday, spokesman Tim Robinson said.
New Mexico, which has the nation's second-highest rate of childhood poverty, decided it would close all schools but leave most of their cafeterias open. It's preparing to deliver meals to children who can't get to them, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said.
States including Oregon and Ohio, meanwhile, obtained waivers to allow districts to give out grab-and-go meals or provide other assistance, such as grocery store gift cards, to lower-income students.
And in Phoenix, where multiple districts announced they would close for at least two weeks, local food banks that stepped up when “Red for Ed” protests shuttered schools in 2018 prepared to fill the void again.