Even as good news on the vaccine front has people all over the nation envisioning an eventual end to the pandemic that’s claimed more than a quarter-million U.S. lives and thrown the nation’s economy into a tailspin, each day brings news of new ways in which the novel coronavirus exacts a toll on our society.
One such effect became apparent this week when the N.H. Department of Education released an estimate of state adequacy aid for school districts for the next fiscal year. Poorer districts receive targeted state aid based on the percentage of their students receiving free or discounted school lunches. That qualifier is a frequently used metric by state and federal agencies because it’s a simple test: families near or below the federal poverty level qualify for discounted meals.
The big caveat to that system is that parents have to apply, giving their incomes to the school districts, in order to receive the benefit. Some don’t want to divulge that information, due to pride or fear or other reasons, or don’t know they qualify. Others, sadly, can’t be bothered.
Whatever the reason, it not only deprives them of the discount, and sometimes their children of a nutritious meal they wouldn’t otherwise receive, but it also means the school district receives less in funding from various sources — including state adequacy aid.
That’s the case during the best of times. These, anyone can tell you, are not the best of times. In fact, the state’s estimate of the adequacy aid due school districts next year is $19 million less than would be expected based on previous fiscal years. Manchester alone stands to lose $4 million. And that’s not even counting the potentially lost federal aid based on the same metrics.
The issue is twofold, driven by the pandemic.
First, when schools closed last spring as the pandemic hit, a decision was made statewide to accept a federal initiative to offer free meals to all students, regardless of income, on the notion that those who relied on their school lunches (and/or, in some districts, breakfasts) to get through the day still needed those meals. That meant there was no need to fill out those qualifying forms, which set everyone back to zero.
Then, as schools largely opted for hybrid learning as fall arrived, parents had less interaction with teachers and school officials, meaning many never got around to catching up on that paperwork.
School districts, already reeling with the added costs of dealing with a pandemic — remote learning, added cleaning and health costs — and potentially less tax revenue, both locally and state-issued, now face another drop.
Parents who’ve qualified for lunch discounts in the past ought to be asking about the applications, both for their own wallets and the resources available to their schools. Those who might fall within the guidelines — especially now, with many adults having been furloughed or laid off — should also inquire. And school officials should be pushing at every opportunity to get those families enrolled. The state says some of the lost revenue can still be made available if the numbers change by the end of the school year.
State decision-makers should also, realizing the difficulty facing districts, redo the numbers to reflect at least the pre-COVID need.
Lastly, New Hampshire’s federal lawmakers ought to be working to buttress aid and make certain the artificial drop in the apparent need doesn’t find its way into federal aid programs.