Friday, 15 May 2020 11:04

N.C. House’s education working group tackles connectivity, student nutrition

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N.C. House’s education working group tackles connectivity, student nutrition RO file photo

RALEIGH — Challenges persist in getting students meals and reliable internet access while schools remain closed. The House Select Committee on COVID-19 Education Working group has returned to tackle these problems and look forward to reopening schools safely in the fall. 

Lawmakers and education officials should err on the side of flexibility and autonomy when making decisions, said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. 

“School districts are in the best position to determine how to use their scarce resources to meet the needs of children and families,” Stoops said. “At minimum, lawmakers should consider waiving class size, calendar, and state allotment requirements.”

The working group met virtually Thursday, May 14, to hear presentations on student nutrition, internet connectivity, and to get an update from the school reopening task force. 

More money is needed to continue to deliver meals to students over the summer, said Lynn Harvey, director of School Nutrition and District Operations. 

Since schools closed March 16, some 18 million meals have been served at 1,000 pick-up and drive-through sites. More than 2,000 school buses have delivered meals.

Food costs will increase, and shortages may occur in the next few months, Harvey said. 

Feeding children isn’t the only challenge. After schools closed, classrooms went online. Students lacking home internet access have struggled to keep up with their peers. 

As with school nutrition, school connectivity will cost money, said Jeff Sural, director of the broadband infrastructure office within the N.C. Department of Information Technology. 

Around 10% of households surveyed don’t have internet access, Sural said, and 67% of those cited cost as the main factor. 

Through public-private partnerships, 180 buses were outfitted with wifi hotspots and sent to 30 counties to provide temporary internet access. But not everyone got service. 

Many western counties were left out, said Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Macon. 

The buses aren’t a perfect solution, but the state is managing the problem, Sural said. 

Recommendations included accelerating payments for grant programs and ensuring federal dollars are flowing. 

No one knows how seamlessly schools will reopen this fall. 

The Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Health and Human Services are working on a plan for safe reopening. It must focus on hygienic practices, social-distancing protocols, monitoring students and staff, protecting high-risk populations, and educating students and staff about risks, said Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary at the health department.