School systems are taking steps to make sure children of federal workers have lunch provided at school. Day-care centers in federal buildings remain closed, forcing parents to scramble for alternatives. And a small kindergarten operating out of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History may have to close for the year if the government isn’t reopened soon.
As week four approaches, the partial federal government shutdown is affecting children and their families across the Washington region, home to an estimated 283,000 federal workers.
Administrators in the suburban Prince George’s County school system in Maryland sent a memo to parents Monday saying the system would make sure that for the rest of the week, “any student that requests a meal due to the federal government shutdown . . . will receive the standard hot entree available at their school.”
The promise followed a request by school board member K. Alexander Wallace (District 7) for the school system to guarantee free meals to all students whose families are affected by the shutdown until it ends. In her letter to parents, Monica E. Goldson, interim chief executive of Prince George’s school system, said that approach would cost the school system an estimated $190,000 a day.
“While laudable, this unbudgeted expense would be fiscally irresponsible and take funding away from other school district services,” she wrote.
Instead, the school system said it will expedite applications for free and reduced lunches from families who may temporarily qualify for the benefit. About 83,000 of the system’s 134,000 students receive free or reduced-price meals.
Arlington Public Schools officials in Virginia emailed families Tuesday to say they were aware the shutdown may be causing stress for families and to “remind all families that our teachers, principals and school counselors are available to support students.” The system encouraged affected families to apply for the school lunch program and to discuss getting a break on fees for after-school programs.
Fairfax County Public Schools offered a similar statement of support and information about reduced fees for federal workers and also announced an event Friday for furloughed federal employees interested in substitute teaching positions.
D.C. Public Schools spokesman Shayne Wells said the system “never denies a student a meal at school” and will work with any families who have a change in income to complete a free and reduced meal application.
Parents with children in day-care centers at federal buildings are struggling to find temporary care. While some parents have been furloughed and can stay home with their children, others must report to work or work in the private sector.
“We’ve definitely had a number of parents calling since the shutdown,” said Crystal Mayo, assistant director of Bright Horizons day-care center on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, just a few blocks from the White House. Mayo has had to inform parents the center is fully enrolled. “There just aren’t really that many options out there for them,” she said.
One group of parents fear their children may not have a school to return to if the shutdown doesn’t end soon. The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center is home to a preschool and small kindergarten — just seven children — that operates out of the National Museums of Natural History and American History. For the kindergarten students, classes are held in the morning, and afternoons are spent visiting Smithsonian museums and sites throughout Washington.
But unlike preschool-age children, students who are at least 5 years old are required to attend school. Parents of those students have to cross their fingers and hope the shutdown ends soon or transfer their kids out of the school and enroll them in another private or public school to meet the mandatory schooling requirement.
Annie Froehlich’s 5-year-old son loves the school and his classmates, so Froehlich is reluctant to pull him out. But with President Trump saying the shutdown could last months or years, she feels she may not have a choice.
“We are still wait-and-see and still hoping, maybe stupidly so, for a positive resolution,” Froehlich said. “To the extent this drags on and if other parents decide to take their children out, there is no guarantee the program will continue this year.”
A call to the school’s director was not immediately returned. But the taped outgoing message had a familiar ring in Washington these days:
“Hello . . . the Smithsonian is closed due to the federal government shutdown, and [the enrichment center] is closed, as well. I will be out of the office and unable to return your phone call until further notice.”