When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools online, education and health officials worried that without free lunches at school cafeterias, children in low-income families would lose out on the nutrition they need.

On Wings Wednesday at North Salem High School, students can order buffalo wings, cilantro ranch, celery, a roll, and fruits and veggies on the side. It's one of several options in the cafeteria.

On Wings Wednesday at North Salem High School, students can order buffalo wings, cilantro ranch, celery, a roll, and fruits and veggies on the side. It's one of several options in the cafeteria.

Amanda Peacher / OPB

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Oregon education officials recently made it easier for schools to reopen, by dropping two coronavirus metrics used to determine reopening. But that doesn’t mean schools and lunchrooms will suddenly open their doors. In fact, officials in Bend-La Pine said Monday that they’re having to postpone plans to open in-person instruction for grades K-3, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Deschutes County.

Oregon’s education and human services departments announced they’re putting school lunch money directly into the hands of families to ensure children are getting the nutrition they need this fall.

State officials said thousands of families will receive $100 or more to compensate families for the cost of lunches that would have been served at school in September and late August. Starting this week, payments will be added to families' electronic benefits transfer accounts, or EBT, through what’s called “Pandemic EBT.”

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Oregon officials say with over 300,000 eligible students, the direct funding to families to cover lost meals dating back to the start of school will total $35.6 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The announcement of Pandemic EBT signals an extension of a program from the spring, which spent $118 million in federal funds in Oregon to help 315,000 children. Most families received $384 per student to cover a four-month period in the spring, with families who applied later receiving $189, according to the self-sufficiency programs director at the Oregon Department of Human Services, Dan Haun.

The direct meal payments are part of a “transition back to school,” Haun said, in a joint statement released by ODHS and the Oregon Department of Education.

“Eligible students will receive up to $176 depending on their school’s start date,” the statement said. But only one school district is receiving that maximum amount, according to a chart released by state officials: the Nyssa School District in eastern Oregon.

Haun said the “start date” is based on the date the school district had planned to start — so families in districts where wildfires and coronavirus delayed or interrupted instruction didn’t lose money.

Families in many of Oregon’s larger school districts including Beaverton, Portland and Salem-Keizer are slated to receive $100 per eligible student. Children in a number of private, charter or specialized programs aren’t eligible for any funding, nor are students at several smaller school districts, including Elgin, Huntington and Union. Officials say one reason families aren’t eligible for the direct payments is that the school is open and serving lunch.

Pandemic EBT payments won’t stop districts from putting together lunches and providing them to families. State officials say those efforts can continue.

The renewed funding stream to families is just a one-time payment for September and late August — at least for now. Officials say they’re expected to continue, as part of a budget agreement moving through Congress.

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