Utah prepares to keep providing meals to students in need if coronavirus causes school closures

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students line up for lunch at Butler Elementary in Cottonwood Heights on Wednesday, March 25, 2016.

If Utah schools are forced to close because of the coronavirus, officials are worried about how many students might go hungry.

It’s one of the bigger complications that would come out of having to move classes online in the case of an outbreak. And in an effort to address it, the Utah Board of Education has applied for four federal waivers that would help ensure the state could continue providing food during that time for children who rely on getting meals at school.

“We hope we won’t have to use any of these waivers,” said Sydnee Dickson, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, in a statement Tuesday. “But it is our obligation to make sure we can continue to serve our students should there be a coronavirus outbreak that forces school closures in Utah.”

Utah’s governor has already declared a state of emergency to be proactive against the illness.

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The state has seen two cases of individuals infected with the coronavirus, with both people being over the age of 60 and no expected community spread from either. But as the illness has reached across the globe and is now moving into communities in the United States, it’s anticipated it will have an impact in Utah — disrupting jobs and schools.

If approved, the school lunch waivers would provide funding and enable the state to create a “grab-and-go” food service where families who need it could still pick up meals in the event that the classrooms have been shut down. The setup would limit interaction and proximity between school staff and students. But it would still provide options primarily for breakfasts and lunches.

In Utah, more than 200,000 students could be affected by not having access to food at school — with that number currently qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. It’s roughly one-third of the K-12 population in the state.

Many of those kids get both breakfast and lunch at school and could potentially miss two meals a day during a closure.

With the federal aid, it’s possible the state could also open up other buildings in areas that are not high-risk and “determined a safe location” to serve meals while classes are being held online to avoid large gatherings and further spread.

One of the waivers asks for allowance to have sponsors provide reimbursable meals while school is out.

Each of the four requests has to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program. Dickson added, “These tools will give school districts, charter schools, and participating private schools and childcare centers, the flexibility they need.”

The symptoms of the coronavirus are like the flu, including a cough and fever. Those concerned they may have the illness are advised to stay away from other people.