Despite January school closures, it's unclear when families will get help for missed school meals
Widespread school closures in January due to COVID-19 related quarantines and staffing shortages have stressed parents, but also brought renewed attention to food assistance programs available for kids when schools are closed.
The Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) program was set up to get money to families to make up for the free and reduced-price meals children would have eaten at schools, had they been learning in the classroom.
The program had a relatively quick rollout in the spring of 2020, when it was first launched, but has hit a number of bureaucratic snags since then. Money for the 2020-2021 school year didn’t go out in Pennsylvania until the summer after the school year had ended. Some families were still waiting for that money in the fall, when the next school year had already started.
Many expect further P-EBT delays this school year. While most schools opened for in-person learning this fall, a number of schools closed for days or weeks at a time in January due to high rates of COVID-19 and related staffing issues.
Pennsylvania Department of Human Service officials say they have submitted their plan to distribute the aid to the federal government for approval, but have no timeline for when any families would see money.
Eight states have had their plans approved so far.
Advocates have said they are concerned that the administrative burden that slowed the program last school year will be much worse now, as school districts will have to track which kids are quarantined at home and which school buildings have temporarily closed, something that changes from day to day.
For this school year, states are required to calculate benefits based on the number of days individual students miss due to COVID-19. However, “schools are not currently required to collect and track in this information in this fashion, so there is no existing infrastructure for Pennsylvania to collect and verify this information,” said a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, who said the state is working with the federal government to be able to offer aid to families.
“Many schools are just not going to have the capacity to participate in P-EBT if it is too complex,” said Ann Sanders, a policy advocate at Pittsburgh-based anti-hunger group Just Harvest. “And that's really the biggest fear I have - the delay in timing is awful, but much worse is if schools can't provide the information because what is being asked is too granular or cumbersome and so kids lose out on food….P-EBT was able to be ramped up quickly the first time because it was relatively simple. We need it to be as simple as possible if it is going to be responsive to needs.”
Federal officials say because most children are back to in-person school this year, the program is different.
“[Congress] wrote it to be in a program that would respond to emergency mass closures of schools. And now we have this incredible success, which is by and large schools are back in person and the program is not quite designed to do that. So it's been a little stickier this year,” said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program.
“It's a much more tailored and targeted program,” Dean said, adding that the family of an average child who learned remotely for all of last school year would have received about $1,200 in benefits. A child home for a 10-day quarantine this year would be eligible for about $71.
Many schools also have “grab and go” meals kids can pick up and bring home on days when schools are closed, though those can be difficult for working parents or anyone with transportation challenges.