One of the most visible consequences of the state’s budget crisis is the increasing number of school districts that are considering or have already gone to a four-day school week. More than 100 districts are considering making the switch, according to the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration. Shortened school weeks may save cash-strapped school budgets, but they also can create troubling side-effects ranging from the cost to families suddenly in need of child care to unanswered questions about how shorter weeks affect learning. What’s most troubling is that for kids whose most reliable meals come from school, a shortened school week can mean going hungry.
This isn’t a small number of kids. In Oklahoma, nearly two out of every three students – more than 400,000 in total – qualify for a free- or reduced-price school meals. While lunches are the most common meal students get at school, school breakfasts are also important for many kids. In the 2014-2015 school year, 58 percent of Oklahoma students who ate a free- or reduced-price lunch ate a free or reduced-price breakfast, too.
These meals are an integral part of the food security safety net. Thousands of families across the state rely on them, and they play an important role in keeping Oklahoma kids healthy and ready to learn. Schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision, which maximizes access to school meals, report everything from better test scores to fewer behavioral issues. School meals are a win-win because they provided needed nutrition to kids while taking the strain off family budgets.
Unfortunately, when schools cut back to four-day weeks, many parents’ paychecks can’t be stretched to provide their kids two or more additional meals per week. The impact can be devastating. When Macomb Public Schools in Pottawatomie County returned to a five-day week from a four-day week for the 2015-2016 school year, Superintendent Matthew Riggs said, “There were kids I firmly believe were leaving school on Thursday and weren’t getting a good meal until Monday morning when we served breakfast again.” Similarly, districts in Idaho and Kentucky have flipped back to five-day school weeks due to concerns about whether their students were getting enough food.
Oklahoma superintendents at districts considering a four-day week are aware of the challenge and looking for ways to minimize the harm. At Wagoner Public Schools, whose board recently voted to begin four-day weeks in August, almost three in four students qualify for free or reduced-price meal. At two Wagoner elementary schools, four in five do. Superintendent Randy Harris says they’re exploring options to try to minimize the negative effects on Wagoner students and families. Extending the school day past 4pm would mean they could offer another meal in the afternoons, and Harris is hopeful that Wagoner will be able to partner with a food bank to send backpacks of food home with students who need it for the weekend.
“There were kids I firmly believe were leaving school on Thursday and weren’t getting a good meal until Monday morning when we served breakfast again.”
Backpack programs are neither new nor unusual in Oklahoma. In the 2014-2015 school year, the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma’s Food for Kids Backpack Program served nearly 18,500 students in 514 schools. Although the food banks undoubtedly want to step up and do all they can, the fact remains that they’re already giving away record amounts of food. According to Executive Director Rodney Bivens of the Regional Food Bank, distribution has increased by 6 percent over the last three months, compared to the same three months last year. That’s an additional 785,000 pounds of food. More four-day weeks across the state mean more backpack programs and similar measures — which mean relying more on private philanthropy to fill the gap caused by the state’s persistent failure to fund basic services.
Superintendent Harris pointed out that it’s a choice between bad options — Wagoner Public Schools was faced with either going to a four-day school week or laying off teachers. Nevertheless, a backpack of Rice-A-Roni and peanut butter isn’t a replacement for nutritionally-rigorous school meals. Macomb Public Schools instituted a backpack program for elementary schoolers and an in-school food bank for high school students when they transitioned to a four-day week, and a lot of their students used it — but by Superintendent Riggs’ estimation, it wasn’t enough. Private charity cannot replace state services, and increasing reliance on it puts Oklahoma children at risk. This makes the need for responsible solutions to the budget crisis that will minimize cuts to education funding and avert the need to move to four-day weeks even more urgent.