School lunches coming for remote learners

Chad Frey
When school buildings were closed by order of the governor in March, Newton USD 373 food service began offering "grab and go" meals to students. As buildings reopen this fall, the district has struggled to offer meals to students not in school buildings as it wrestles with the logistics of serving students learning in school, online only and in hybrid learning plans, funding sources and staffing levels.

Newton USD 373 anticipates serving lunches to students attending school online next week — but the details of how those lunches will be distributed is still up in the air.

As school restarted for the fall semester, meals have not been available to students outside of school buildings as the district has worked to not only bring funding from USDA to the district for free meals, but with a distribution plan accounting for how students attend school.

“Our plan is to serve remote and hybrid students beginning next Wednesday, September 16,” said superintendent Fred Van Rankin. “We are still working out details, but due to the change at the federal level regarding the lunch program possibilities, shortage of staff, and logistics surrounding the need to serve in-person, remote, and hybrid students, we are not moving as fast as we would have liked to with this.”

Starting those meals Sept. 16 would mean affected students have been without meals for eight days of school, spread over three calendar weeks.

The district announced Sept. 7 the extension of a USDA program providing free lunches to all students. That program, a response to COVID-19, funded lunches for Newton students throughout the summer months. It will now fund lunches through Dec. 31.

That announcement was the first concerning school lunches for the school year that began Sept. 3.

The Kansan had inquired multiple times in the weeks before school about the lunch program — specifically asking what plans were in place for the distribution of meals for students attending school online.

On Sept. 10, the Kansan contacted three board of education members asking about the distribution plan. None of those board members chose to speak on the record.

Van Rankin was meeting with meal program staff to chart a path forward, which has been occurring on a weekly basis. The previous week, Van Rankin and meal program staff attended a webinar by the Kansas State Department of Education dedicated to the federal funding changes.

“(Staff) is working very hard to figure out the logistics, as we have to be careful that we have processes in place to ensure our hybrid students are only getting three meals when we are in that mode of operation — rather than five, which our remote students would receive,” Van Rankin said. “We would only qualify for the reimbursement for five total, thus costing the district more money.”

Before school began, nearly 23% of the student population was enrolled in online-only school. The board of education chose to begin school under code “Yellow” of the return to learn program — meaning that pre-K through sixth-grade students are in school buildings all day, every day. Students in grade seven through 12 are attending in a hybrid model — students spend two days in school buildings and three days attending online. Those students are split into two groups, meaning that only one half of students are in a building on a given day.

Serving those three different populations through the meal program has proved to be logistically difficult as the district begins school.

“With all of the adjustments to lunch schedules (increased serving times due to social distancing requirements, etc.), shortage of staff, and then the latest announcement, getting everything in place has been a challenge,” Van Ranken said.

Van Rankin told the Kansan in an email Sept. 10 that meals will be served at the high school and that times and the process for distribution will be “announced soon.”