PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As the coronavirus spreads, questions swirl over if and when schools should close.
To date, Oregon health officials emphasize the importance of not attending schools, going to work or public gatherings if you’re sick. But there has been no call to close schools during this outbreak.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley told KOIN 6 News kids should be able to get meals at schools if they close and during the summer.
“The federal government decided to cut the summer food program for children and I thought that was just outrageous,” Merkley said. “Oregon is one of the hungriest states in the country.”
Merkley, the top Democrat on the Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee that funds both the US Department of Agriculture and the SNAP program, said Oregon will be included in a pilot program to use SNAP benefits to order groceries online during the summer months.
He also said that if the country gets to a point in the coronavirus outbreak when schools do close, “then we also continue to make food available” to students anytime at schools and at other sites.
In that same vein, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and Kentucky Rep. James Comer unveiled a bipartisan bill to protect students’ access to school meal benefits during school closures related to COVID-19.
“As we continue to take necessary precautions because of the coronavirus, we must make sure that students can access nutritious meals if their schools are closed,” Bonamici said in a statement. “School meals are often the only source of wholesome food for students, and this bill will make it easier for schools to continue serving the meals students rely on to stay healthy.”
Their bill, the COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Act, will let schools distribute food in different settings across nutrition programs and allow more meal component flexibility.
Merkley, who also helped push through $8.3 billion ini emergency funds for COVID-19 last week, is now working with the Bureau of Prisons to make sure they have policies in place to limit the spread.
“We want to make sure the test kits are everywhere,” Merkley said.
Elections and voters
Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a bill, the Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act of 2020, that would require all states to offer an option for voters to mail in or drop off a hand-marked paper ballot — but only if 25% of US states declare a state of emergency regarding COVID-19 or a natural disaster.
Merkley praised his Oregon colleague for his efforts in this and other vote-by-mail initiatives.
The possibilities the coronavirus pandemic will interfere with voters’ ability to cast a ballot is a “significant challenge” that needs to be addressed, he said. “We don’t want people staying away because they’re afraid of getting sick or afraid of making other sick.”
He added it’s possible Wyden’s bill “I hope it’s the sort of thing we can get unanimous consent” in the Senate. “It wouldn’t require states to do this but would give them full authority to do it.”