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Some families are being forced to choose between remote learning and school meals

Daniel Fishel for NPR

Joel Barron, a mother of two in Minnetonka, Minn., has a question for policymakers:

"Will you look in my child's eyes when they do not have any food?"

Until recently, Barron's children, ages 10 and 12, qualified for free school meals. During the last school year, when they and millions of other kids were learning remotely, Barron received the value of the meals they missed on a debit card that she could use to buy groceries herself.

The program, called P-EBT, began with the pandemic in March 2020.

"It was a godsend," Barron says of the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "We were able to actually get through the whole month without trying to think about, 'Oh, we have to go to the food [pantry].' "

That changed after Barron's school district reopened for in-person learning. Because a COVID-19 vaccine wasn't yet available for her 10-year-old son and her daughter struggles with asthma, Barron felt safer keeping them home again this school year and enrolling them in the district's online academy.

The problem is that, according to USDA guidance, "a virtual academy, whether administered by the State or the school district, is not eligible to participate in the [National School Lunch Program (NSLP)]." Which means no P-EBT this year for families like Barron's.

The guidance excludes some students who are still learning remotely

Most schools in the U.S. started the 2021-'22 school year in person, including Barron's district. But, she says, "I decided what was best for my children was to have them attend the distance learning academy."

That academy is run by White Bear Lake Area Schools (WBLAS), and according to its website is "taught by WBLAS teachers, aligned with WBLAS curriculum and Minnesota state standards and designed to meet the same high levels of academic rigor present in traditional in-person school."

In short, Barron's kids still attend public school – just online. She was shocked when she realized, months into the school year, that decision meant they no longer qualified for P-EBT.

Barron took her confusion and frustration to social media in January. Her story appeared in The Counter, a food journalism website, and she even challenged NPR on Twitter: "Will you write an article on P-ebt and how virtual student[s] are left out"?

USDA, meanwhile, says students cannot receive P-EBT benefits this year if they attend a program that has not traditionally offered school meals, like a virtual academy.

"Benefits are available to children who would have received free or reduced price meals at their schools... if not for their schools' closure or reduced attendance or hours in response to the COVID emergency," a USDA spokesperson tells NPR.

"I feel like I was punished for making the best choice for my child."

According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, P-EBT "significantly reduced food hardship in the winter, spring, and summer of 2020-21."

Anti-hunger advocates say it's important for policymakers to understand that some families still don't feel comfortable returning to brick-and-mortar schools, and the USDA shouldn't simply cut them off from money that helped put food on their tables last year.

We're trying to fit the current problem into rules that were designed pre-pandemic.

"We're trying to fit the current problem into rules that were designed pre-pandemic," says Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst with the nonprofit think tank Every Texan.

Yes, virtual academies are traditionally excluded from the school lunch program, Cooper says, but there's nothing traditional about this school year. Many vulnerable children depended on P-EBT last year and are now enrolled in virtual schools because of continued COVID concerns.

In many places, these academies are families' only remaining online option.

Cooper says the USDA is forcing some families to choose between keeping children home, for fear of COVID, and sending them back to school so they can receive free breakfast and lunch.

"That is a choice that we shouldn't be forcing families to make. It is a technicality that is playing out on the most vulnerable families," she explains. "Kinship families – kids being raised by grandparents who are at high risk themselves, and ... they're on fixed incomes. P-EBT and free school meals are critical for them. And so having it cut off really means there's nothing to put on the dinner table."

Many parents and caregivers, including Barron, say they had no idea enrolling in a virtual academy would cut off access to P-EBT. Barron's district is still offering meals to go, but they must be picked up and Barron has no car.

"I feel like I was punished for making the best choice for my child," Barron says. "I never wanted to keep my children away from school." They loved school, she says.

Not all students have been cut off from P-EBT

USDA's guidance does allow P-EBT for students who are learning virtually temporarily.

Students who attend schools that participate in the school lunch program and "that adopt a hybrid schedule or temporarily switch to virtual instruction in response to COVID are eligible for P-EBT benefits on those remote learning days," a USDA spokesperson tells NPR.

But to continue to provide P-EBT benefits, even in these limited situations, states must meet strict new USDA reporting requirements – and before they can access the funds, they have to submit plans outlining how they'll do that. Halfway through this school year, 29 states have submitted their plans. Just 12 have been approved.

"USDA is requiring that [schools] have a process to be able to track those individual kids [who are receiving P-EBT]. And that's not data that states and school districts ever really track," says Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign. "It's very, very onerous to determine if Susie's out because of COVID or for another reason ... so because of that, we know that some states have been hesitant to apply [for P-EBT]."

"Nobody's ill-intentioned," Davis says, pointing out that USDA can no longer make broad assumptions about who qualifies for P-EBT as it did last year, when entire districts were remote. But asking schools to meet strict new rules and provide more detailed data, especially when staffing has been stretched thin by the surge in coronavirus cases, is unrealistic in many places, if not impossible.

And Davis warns of another crisis looming: States that don't submit a school-year P-EBT plan won't be able to offer the program to students over the summer.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.