The last day of school before we closed our doors in March was the hardest day I’ve ever had as a teacher. Only 12 students of our 26 were present. The kids kept telling my co-teacher and me how much they were going to miss us, staff were running around the building trying to get copied packets of work ready for students to take home, and there was an overwhelming feeling of the unknown. How long were our students going to stay at home?
“Mrs. Khatavkar, we’ll see you after Spring Break, right?”
“That’s the plan. Promise me you’ll keep reading, okay,” I reminded one of my 3rd graders.
I left school that Friday in tears because I knew that many of our students were going to have a hard time getting their basic needs met, including shelter, emotional support, and food. Before the pandemic, 11% of the U.S. population were experiencing food insecurity. As COVID-19 continues to drive up employment rates and create more uncertainty in people’s lives, my students’ access to nutritionally dense foods is being heavily impacted. Until basic needs are met, I cannot expect them to fill out online reading logs. Keeping them healthy and safe needs to be a top priority.
As educators, parents, and community members, we must band together and ensure that our children are supplied with proper nutrition at home. Currently, Denver Public Schools (DPS) is offering 11:00am to 12:30pm, Monday through Friday, bagged breakfast and lunch pickups at 24 school sites. DPS has also set up 36 additional sites where parents and students can walk up and collect their meals. Twenty-four recreational centers in the Denver area are also allowing parents, families, and students to collect grab-and-go dinners as well. These actions are commendable. Although the district is helping to feed our students nutritious meals, there is still vast room for improvement.
According to a state-advertised price tag, the cost of lunch per student in Denver Public Schools ranges from $2.45 for an elementary student to $2.85 for a high school student. A family with one child in school now has to cover these costs at home, totaling at least $12 per week in additional costs. A family with three students in DPS now has to cover at least $36 per week for meals at home. However, meals at home usually cost much more. At a time when many families are struggling to pay rent and utilities, the unexpected cost of daily breakfast and lunch can add extra financial stress.
Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the USDA has approved for increased benefits to families of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. Michigan has enacted a program that extends another $193 to qualifying families’ EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) accounts to offset the costs of feeding their children breakfast and lunches which would otherwise be supplied by schools.
Colorado should adopt such a program to ensure that our students and families are not experiencing food insecurities during this uncertain time. As teachers, we are working hard to reach our students remotely, but there are certain needs that must be met if we expect to also educate them. Access to nutritious meals is one such need. My students will struggle to learn fractions if they are constantly thinking about where their next meal will come from, if at all. Our kids are relying on us all to keep them healthy and safe through this pandemic. We cannot disappoint them.
Joanna Khatavkar is a special education co-teacher in a 3rd grade inclusive classroom at Jessie Whaley Maxwell Elementary in Denver Public Schools. She is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Colorado Policy Fellow.