NEWTON—Students attending school online with the Newton USD 373 district may get free lunches later this week — but the details of how those lunches will be distributed is still up in the air.

Even though school restarted for the fall semester on September 3, meals have not been available to students outside of school buildings as the district has worked to not only bring funding from USDA to the district for free meals, but with a distribution plan accounting for how students attend school.

"Our plan is to serve remote and hybrid students beginning Wednesday, September 16," said superintendent Fred Van Rankin. "We are still working out details, but due to the change at the federal level regarding the lunch program possibilities, shortage of staff, and logistics surrounding the need to serve in-person, remote, and hybrid students, we are not moving as fast as we would have liked to with this."

Starting those meals Sept. 16 would mean affected students have been without meals for eight days of school, spread over three calendar weeks.

The district announced Sept. 7 the extension of a USDA program providing free lunches to all students. That program, a response to COVID-19, funded lunches for Newton students throughout the summer months. It will now fund lunches through Dec. 31.

Van Rankin has been meeting weekly with meal program staff to chart a path forward. Last week, Van Rankin and meal program staff attended a webinar by the Kansas State Department of Education dedicated to the federal funding changes.

"(Staff) is working very hard to figure out the logistics, as we have to be careful that we have processes in place to ensure our hybrid students are only getting three meals when we are in that mode of operation — rather than five, which our remote students would receive," Van Rankin said. "We would only qualify for the reimbursement for five total, thus costing the district more money."

Before school began, nearly 23% of the student population was enrolled in online-only school. The board of education chose to begin school under code "Yellow" of the return to learn program — meaning that pre-K through sixth-grade students are in school buildings all day, every day. Students in grade seven through 12 are attending in a hybrid model — students spend two days in school buildings and three days attending online. Those students are split into two groups, meaning that only one half of students are in a building on a given day.

"With all of the adjustments to lunch schedules (increased serving times due to social distancing requirements, etc.), shortage of staff, and then the latest announcement, getting everything in place has been a challenge," Van Ranken said.

Van Rankin told the Kansan in an email Sept. 10 that meals will be served at the high school and that times and the process for distribution will be "announced soon."