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Shutdown Day 32: School Districts Step Up to Help Students and Families

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With federal workers feeling squeezed from not receiving a paycheck during the longest shutdown of the federal government in history, school districts are stepping up to help families make ends meet.

Across the country—from Tulsa, Okla., to Atlanta—districts are offering jobs to idled federal employees, raising money to help struggling families, and expanding school meal programs so students with furloughed parents can have free breakfast and lunch at school.  

Districts are doing so amid concerns that the National School Lunch Program, which feeds more than 30 million students annually, could run out of money in March if the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, is not funded or if the shutdown does not end soon.

On Wednesday, several national education organizations wrote to President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to ask them to take up and pass a House bill to fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The letter was signed by the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of Elementary Schools Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Education Association, the National PTA and the National School Boards Association, and the Association of Educational Service Agencies.

Here's what some districts are doing:

Atlanta Public Schools: The school district started a campaign to raise $25,000  to help employees whose family members are among the government workers who are not receiving a paycheck.

The district estimates that about 300 to 500 of its employees have a family member who works for a federal agency where workers are furloughed during the shutdown, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

By 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Go Fund Me campaign had raised $6,389 of its goal, with a $1,500 donation from Superintendent Meria Carstarphen.

Atlanta is also among the many districts encouraging federal employees to apply for substitute teaching positions.

Northside ISD, San Antonio:

Since San Antonio's largest school district launched a special application last week for furloughed federal employees, more than a dozen have applied for temporary and seasonal jobs. 

Applicants include workers with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Transportation Security Administration, Homeland Security, and the USDA, according to Patty Denham Hill, the assistant superintendent in Northside.

Within a day of posting the special application, the district hired its first furloughed worker, who is a government investigator. He was hired to be a substitute teacher and tutor and will also fill in as a "watchdog," a district program that allows adults to act as another "set of adult eyes, to walk the campus for the safety of the students," Hill said.

The bulk of the 150 or so vacancies at Northside are likely to be in substitute teaching or tutoring, but the district will try to match peoples' skillset with available openings. There are openings in the nutrition department, on the custodial staff, and for bus drivers.

And since many of the federal workers already have criminal background checks, the district can expedite the background checking process.

The district is trying to place employees in schools close to their homes or near their jobs so that they can keep a familiar route. And the additional substitutes help the district, particularly in schools with a low substitute fill rate and where permanent staff is on leave.

"We are hoping we'll be able to help more people because of the uncertainty that's out there," Hill said, adding that the federal employees have been grateful for the opportunities, with some saying that "it gives them a sense of purpose; it gives them a sense of dignity" to be able to get up and go to work.

Hill said that while "no one is going to get rich" from any of the temporary jobs, they will make a big difference to someone who is used to receiving a paycheck every two weeks. It's also a way for the district to support its students, she said.

"They are grateful they have a place to go and serve, and we are happy to help them serve," Hill said.

Prince George's County, Md.

In addition to encouraging federal employees to apply for substitute teaching and substitute paraprofessional jobs, the district has set up a fund to cover breakfast and lunch for students whose parents are affected by the shutdown.

The Excellence in Education Foundation for Prince George's County Public Schools, in suburban Washington, initially planned to raise enough money to cover 10,000 meals for students. More than 500 families have been approved to temporarily qualify for the program, the district said.

The fund had raised about $31,000 by the end of last week. With no end to the shutdown in sight, the district is extending the goal to raise money to cover up to 20,000 meals.

Photo:  Kelsey Ashwood, an employee at The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, helps Cynthia Prewitt get apples during a pop-up food market for federal workers earlier this week, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. -Stephen Pingry/Tulsa World via AP

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