Facing possible extended closures, local school districts exploring means to feed thousands of children out of school

Ahead of prolonged school closures, local school districts are looking at ways to ensure economically disadvantaged children still have access to meals. (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)
Ahead of prolonged school closures, local school districts are looking at ways to ensure economically disadvantaged children still have access to meals. (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)

Ahead of prolonged school closures, local school districts are looking at ways to ensure economically disadvantaged children still have access to meals. (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)

Note from the editor: This article has been updated to include a statement from Eanes ISD.

Every year, tens of thousands of public school students across Central Texas school districts rely on free or reduced-price meals every day for lunch.

Now, ahead of potential, prolonged school closures prompted by health concerns over the spread of coronavirus, local school districts are looking at ways to ensure economically disadvantaged children still have access to meals.

Austin ISD closed its schools March 13 after two presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the Austin-Travis County area by Austin Public Health.

"In the interest of health safety in regard to our students and staff, AISD schools and offices will be closed Friday, March 13," a notice on the district's website read March 13. "District administration will continue to closely monitor the situation and provide operational updates, as necessary."

A few hours after the announcement, AISD Operations Officer Matias Segura tweeted the school district would be preparing lunch at 14 different sites across the district for children under 19 years of age.

AISD officials in an email sent to Community Impact Newspaper stated the district will continue to prepare and distribute meals for children under 19 years of age while school is closed due to COVID-19 precautions.

Beginning March 23—if the AISD closures continue past next week’s scheduled spring break—curbside meals will be provided for children.

Meals will be available for pickup from noon-1:30 p.m. Monday-Friday at the following locations: Dobie Middle SChool, Cook Elementary School, Burnet Middle School, LBJ Early College High School, Govalle Elementary School, T.A. Brown Elementary School, Eastside Memorial Early College High School, Dawson Elementary School, Linder Elementary School, Crockett Early College High School, Pleasant Hill Elementary School, Houston Elementary School, Akins Early College High School and Perez Elementary School.

The meals served at these sites will consist of protein, grains, fruit and vegetables with options for milk and cutlery, according to AISD officials. Families are advised to stay in their cars during meal pickup. Children must be present in order to receive meals from the district, and meals will not be provided for adults.

According to AISD, the 14 sites that will be served with curbside meals were selected because 50% or more of students who attend those campuses receive meal benefits from the district.

Texas Education Agency data from the 2018-19 school year shows that almost half of AISD’s total student body population qualifies for free meals. Overall, 39,541 students qualified for free meals last year, and an additional 3,159 students qualified for reduced-price meals.

Many of those students may rely on meals provided by the school district as their only source of food. According to data collected by AISD, 1,958 students experienced homelessness in the 2018-19 school year. Of those students, 200 were unaccompanied by adults, according to the data.

Uncertain closures

As of publication, no other school districts in communities covered by Community Impact Newspaper have suspended classes as a COVID-19 precaution.

Officials from several school districts have told Community Impact Newspaper that further decisions to shutter campuses or move classes online will be made over spring break. For most local school districts, spring break begins March 16 with students returning March 23.

“Round Rock ISD's leadership team will be meeting throughout spring break and will make a determination if and when we need to consider school closures and additional measures.

We are also working on a contingency plan that would allow for virtual instruction and providing food to students in the event of prolonged cancellation,” said Maritza Gallaga, RRISD's associate director of communications and community relations, in an email to Community Impact Newspaper.

More than 20% of RRISD’s student population is eligible for free meals, according to TEA data from the 2018-19 school year. Altogether, more than 13,000 RRISD students qualify for free or reduced-price meals from the district.

Last summer, the school district provided access to free meals to children 18 years and younger from May 29 through the end of June, according to district documents. RRISD provided breakfast and lunch at eight separate campus sites across the district.

According to RRISD’s website, the program was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition program for economically disadvantaged children, the Seamless Summer Option.

Leander ISD officials on March 12 discussed possible scenarios for the district in the case it shutters campuses due to coronavirus concerns. District officials said students and teachers should take electronic devices home in the occurrence LISD officials decide to suspend the school year over spring break.

Some students also rely on LISD for nutrition, receiving two meals per day on school days, district officials said. State numbers show more than 6,600 LISD students are eligible for free meals from the district.

LISD leaders on March 12 said the district is looking into a variation of its summer feeding program, or new programs, such as a Meals on Wheels-type service where meals would be driven to students' homes.

Officials from Hutto ISD and Pflugerville ISD told Community Impact Newspaper that their districts do not currently have plans in place to feed children during prolonged closures. Both districts stated they are in daily communication with local and state health officials and will make any decisions about closing schools over spring break.

"It is not something that has been decided on," PfISD Communications Officer Tamra Spence said.

Eanes ISD will not provide meals to students should the district experience prolonged closures due to coronavirus, said Claudia McWhorter, executive director of Communication and Community Engagement for Eanes ISD.

"In Eanes ISD, a small number of students participate in the free-and-reduced meal program. Because we also do not make meals available during winter, spring and summer vacations, we have decided not to make meals available should schools close for an extended time due to these circumstances. We would encourage the few families this affects to contact us so we may provide alternative plans," McWhorter told Community Impact Newspaper in an email.
By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.