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California school kids will still get free meals if their schools are forced to close to halt the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, thanks to a special waiver program announced Tuesday by the California Department of Education.

This week, Parlier Unified School District announced the temporary closure of two schools over coronavirus concerns. A growing number of other public and private schools across California have also done so, some indefinitely.

Concern Over Student Access to School Meals

One of the major concerns for school officials in low-income areas is whether students who get free breakfasts, lunches, and snacks at school would have to go hungry if schools close.

But the California Education Department has received a special waiver, CA COVID19, from the U.S. Department of Education to fund the meals through the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option programs.

The federally funded, state-administered programs serve free meals to students age 18 and younger in communities where 50% or more of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

Students will be able to pick up the meals “to go.” They will be provided at schools or other sites.

“We appreciate that everyone is working to mitigate the impacts on our neediest students.” — spokeswoman Kelly Avants

Waiver Allows Meals To Continue

State Schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond said the state’s Nutrition Services Division reached out to the U.S. Agriculture Department so that meals provided to students would not be interrupted in the event of widespread school closings.

“That advanced planning, combined with the rapid response from the USDA, will allow districts to continue to provide their most vulnerable students with nutritious meals in the event of a closure,” he said.

About 90% of Fresno Unified School District students qualify because of their family income levels, and the school district has provided free meals to all district students for years.

Fresno Unified officials are planning for the possibility of school closures and staff shortages while continuing to provide meals to students, spokeswoman Amy Idsvoog said.

Clovis Unified School District participates in the Seamless Summer Option program and would be eligible for a waiver, spokeswoman Kelly Avants said. Students in the summer program receive their meals at off-site locations, she said.

“We appreciate that everyone is working to mitigate the impacts on our neediest students,” she said.

Planning Continues For Virus Spread

Central Unified Superintendent Andy Alvarado said he was relieved to hear of the waiver, since 70% of the district’s students are eligible for the free meal program. District officials are planning for where and how students would pick up their meals, if school closures are ordered.

Only two COVID-19 coronavirus cases have been reported thus far in Fresno and Madera counties. Parlier’s closures came after a student returned from traveling to an affected area. The two schools share a campus and cafeteria, so the district closed the schools through Friday to perform a thorough cleaning of buildings and surfaces, a district official said.

Alvarado said Central Unified has taken preventative steps, including curtailing some travel by students and staffers to areas where COVID-19 is more widespread. The district is posting regular updates about COVID-19 impacts on its website.

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