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Congress Averts Government Shutdown, Makes it Easier for Schools to Feed Hungry Kids


Schools no longer have to worry about a federal government shutdown right before the presidential election. And the short-term agreement reached by Congress and the White House to keep the government open includes a provision to make it easier for schools to serve students meals during the pandemic.

But the deal also means Congress has punted on approving spending levels for education for the upcoming budget year, and schools won't know for some time if they'll be getting an increase in federal funding. 

The legislation signed by President Donald Trump on Thursday will extend fiscal 2020 funding for the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies through Dec. 11. So we won't know for some time how much money federal education programs like Title I, special education, and grants for charter school expansion will get in fiscal 2021. For many big-ticket federal education programs, the upcoming federal fiscal year impacts funding for the 2021-22 school year.

However, perhaps the biggest news for the education community in the short-term deal addresses the logistical challenges for schools that are feeding children during the pandemic. 

The spending deal—known in official Washington jargon as a continuing resolution—gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to waive certain rules for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs through the end of this school year, and provides additional funding to support such waivers. (The deal allows the department to waive these rules through Sept. 30, 2021.) That gives schools several months more breathing room than what they had before under waivers previously granted by the Agriculture Department. 

First authorized in a coronavirus relief bill enacted in mid-March, these waivers have allowed schools to feed schools in non-congregant settings, in order to ensure students can get meals while observing social distancing; let parents pick up meals for their children without those children being present; and permitted schools to provide meals outside of standard serving times, among other things. 

Educators, lobbyists, and lawmakers from both parties have highlighted the important role schools have played in making sure students receive meals during the pandemic and resulting economic crisis, and that waivers have been crucial in supporting this work. 

In August, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the most recent nutrition waiver extensions, which include allowing summer meal service providers to continue feeding students during the school year among other flexibilities. (This was an about-face for Perdue, who several days before this announcement had said they would not be extended.) However, Perdue granted these extensions only through the end of calendar year 2020. 

The spending agreement by itself doesn't institute the waivers. But it paves the way for the agriculture secretary to grant them. 

"Even amidst a health and economic crisis, childhood hunger is solvable," said Lisa Davis, a senior vice president at the nutrition and food advoacy group Share Our Strength, in a statement after House passage of the spending deal earlier this month. "This legislation was a critical step to get our nation back on a path to end hunger."

The spending deal covers annual funding, not emergency aid like the kind included in the CARES Act.

Typically, brief government shutdowns that last a matter of days don't have a huge impact on school operations and federal K-12 support. However, not surprisingly, an extended shutdown is a different story. Go here for background on federal government shutdowns and education

Technically, annual appropriations from Congress only ran through Wednesday, so there was a bit of uncertainty about the prospect of a shutdown before Trump signed the bill a few minutes after midnight on Thursday.

Photo: A server places breakfast out in the cafeteria at Kyrene De Las Lomas Elementary School in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

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