Cities and towns across the country are seeing widespread closures of K-12 and post-secondary education institutions. Currently these closures may be extended well beyond the original two-to-four-week span, pending continued assessment of uncertain developments in the Coronavirus outbreak. Millions of children, parents, teachers and school workers are/will experience significant disruptions that extend well beyond students’ education achievements. Significant social, nutritional, housing and health services are also affected by school closures. The most vulnerable people will be hurt the most, as times of crisis especially expose the gaps in our social fabric.
City officials are trusted leaders that residents will look to for guidance. Regardless of formal authority over school systems in their jurisdiction, elected and appointed officials have tremendous influence and relationships to deploy. City leaders can convene public and private educational partners, as well as businesses and community-based organizations to address the following in the event of school closures to keep students safe, fed, and their learning progressing:
- Closing school cafeterias/dining halls will affect students who will go hungry without school breakfast and lunch and after school snacks and suppers.
- Distance learning/online classes can be effective only if all students have computers and high-speed internet access.
- Many post-secondary students who already face housing and food insecurity are further challenged as their institutions close and force them to leave without access to food pantries on campus.
- Many post-secondary students who rely on campus jobs or work-study job may face unexpected expenses and loss of wages during this time.
- Many post-secondary students may not have health insurance and access to health care with the closure of student health services on campus.
High Level Recommendations
The digital divide will impact many students’ ability to learn and remain on target for academic progress. Strengthening wireless hotspots outside of libraries and other city facilities (even if the facility is closed) will be critical. Fortunately, the Federal Communications Commission has secured a voluntary commitment from many internet service providers (ISPs) for the next 60 days. The “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” asks that companies not terminate service for residential or small business customers, waive any late fees incurred due to the economic effects of the virus, and open access to public Wi-Fi hotspots to “any American who needs them.” Cities should check if their local-area providers are on the list of pledged companies and remain in contact with them about these commitments and any additional ones they can make.
The American Federation of Teachers has published an important checklist of questions you should ask your school or school district now to ensure everyone is prepared for distance learning. This checklist covers important questions on topics such as technology access, preparation and training, and technology “help desk” support for students and parents’ writ large, specific to English language learners and for students with disabilities. The AFT site also includes access to the Remote Learning Community for educators, school support staff, and parents to engage/share ideas, and lesson plan resources.
Meals to ensure food security for our nation’s students:
City leaders can bring various city agencies and community-based partners together to identify organizations and facilities that can be used to serve meals for students, such as school sites and the city’s recreation centers. Identify non-school locations and transportation for non-essential staff who can be deployed to coordinate sites where students can pick up meals.
Ensure that your state nutrition and social services agencies are making plans with your school district(s) to submit waivers to the federal government to ensure low-income families relying on school lunch and school breakfast will continue to have access to school meals. These measures include waiving eligibility requirements for summer nutrition programs, allowing multiple meals and meal supplements to be offered at a time, flexibility of meal items and for procurement.
Finding safe spaces and/or housing for students while schools are closed
City leaders can bring various city agencies and community-based partners together to ascertain facilities that can be used and services that can be redeployed to support safe, productive activities for children and families. This includes recreation centers and gyms, the local Y and other organizations with facilities for safe activities.
City leaders can work with higher education institutions to convert part of their on-campus dorms to house students who cannot afford to or are unable to get home, or who do not have a home to go to, with the proviso to practice safe distancing and that campus services would be highly limited.
Some hotels are offering severely discounted rates for students who have nowhere to go if their colleges are closed. City leaders can encourage this practice with hotels.
The Hope Center, an NLC partner, offers a very useful toolkit for postsecondary institutions trying to support students’ food and housing needs during this crisis.
Ensuring Healthcare Access for students while schools are closed
City leaders can work with partners to ensure access to health care by engaging community health centers, public health departments and other healthcare providers to explore strong access to care, including through telehealth options. Hospitals and healthcare providers are likely to be stretched under the current crisis, and individuals showing symptoms of COVID-19 should always call in advance before going in for services. However, students have a wide range of other health care needs that may require medical attention. Cities have a role to play to promote alternate sources of healthcare and in communicating ways to access them.
Many students are uninsured. If they are eligible for CHIP and/or Medicaid, they can get emergency coverage to get screened and treated. Some states may be opening a special enrollment period for health coverage due to the Coronavirus crisis – see Maryland Health Connection. For students who are not eligible for Medicaid or are undocumented, they can go to a health center and access care sites with sliding scale fees.
Local Government Examples
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Free Meals and Safe Spaces for Children
The School District is coordinating with the Mayor’s Office of Children and Families, Parks & Recreation, and many other departments and nonprofit partners to provide meal service and activities in safe spaces throughout the city.
- Blog: Find free meals and safe spaces for students while schools are closed
- Map: Where to find free meals and activities for students – interactive map
Baltimore, Maryland – Food Distribution Hubs for Vulnerable Populations
To serve its vulnerable populations, including children and families, older adults, and other food-insecure families, Mayor Young has announced that all of the city’s recreation centers and 10 city school sites will serve as food distribution hubs. Note the following provisions:
- These are “grab and go” services. Children and families cannot remain at the site after food pickup and are asked to practice safe social distancing at all sites.
- Identification or personal information will NOT be requested at these sites. This is NOT a public benefit that would be considered in public charge decisions.
About the Authors
Audrey Hutchinson is director of education and expanded earning at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.