We know that this ferocious pandemic has taken a massive toll in terms of lives lost, but once this unfolding tragedy runs its course, it will be time to take stock of its collateral damage. The economic shutdown required to “flatten the curve” has devastated the livelihoods of millions of Americans, including many religiously observant families who send their children to nonpublic schools. Those institutions and their students need assistance, now more than ever.
Prior to the pandemic—in what was arguably the strongest economy of our lifetime—67,000 students in New York’s Jewish day schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunch under federal guidelines, a commonly cited benchmark for financial distress. More broadly, 20 percent of families in the United States were living below the poverty line with 30 million students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, and 2.9 million students not knowing where their next meal will come from.
This is why we fought for the New York City Department of Education’s recent move to offer kosher and halal meal options at their “grab and go” distribution stations. The fact that supply ran out at some sites before 11 a.m. on the first day of distribution last week demonstrates the level of distress in the Jewish community. The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on low- and middle-income families, already profound, will only get worse. Food insecurity threatens to grow on a scale that we could have never imagined in this country.
New York City is now demonstrating equity in the distribution of meals religiously based dietary requirements. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that it took more than six weeks for the city’s meal program to become fully equitable, and that we had to fight for it in the first place. The city has provided kosher and halal meals before, so there was no reason for delaying the roll-out of these meals during a time of widespread financial shock.
Furthermore, the dire need goes beyond meals. Hundreds of thousands of kids across America do not have devices or Internet service, so they are left without the technological opportunity to continue their formal learning during the quarantine. And many states have yet to mandate continuation of specialized services for students in need.
In legislative sessions across the United States, lawmakers are considering how they will allocate funds intended to ease the burden schools are facing as a result of this unprecedented crisis. We are continuing to advocate for all schools to be treated equally in the distribution of resources for meals; continuation of specialized services; and the availability of necessary equipment and programs for remote learning.
Pandemics and the tragic suffering left in their wake do not discriminate. Every day of delay is another day that state and local governments fail in their responsibility to serve every student in distress. It is time for all states and cities to take meaningful steps towards equitable services and funding.
Maury Litwack is the executive director of Teach NYS and its national umbrella, Teach Coalition, a division of the Orthodox Union that advocates for equitable government funding of nonpublic schools.