Gov. Phil Murphy signed A-1104 on May 4, also known as the Hunger Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act. The bill prohibits the denial of meals to students whose school meal bills are in arrears.

The bill also requires districts to annually provide all parents and/or guardians with the information and forms necessary to maximize participation in programs. Additionally, the bill requires a district’s liaison for homeless students to ensure that homeless students receive free meals.

The bill was amended to require that, if a student’s parent or guardian has not made full payment of a student’s school breakfast or school lunch bill in arrears by the end of 10 school days, a school district must provide notice of any action to be taken in response to a student’s school breakfast or school lunch bill being in arrears.  Under current law, a school district is required to provide notice that school breakfast or school lunch will not be served to the student beginning one week from the date of the second notice unless payment is made in full.

NJSBA has supported this bill as it passed through the legislature.

Veto of the Bridging the Digital Divide Grant Program The governor vetoed A-3842 this week. This bill would establish a “Bridging the Digital Divide in Schools Grant Program” in the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE).  The program would allocate grants to school districts, charter schools, renaissance school projects, and nonpublic schools to provide or expand access to education technology for students whose families do not have the means to purchase technology equipment such as laptops, tablets, or electronic mobile devices, or who lack Internet access at home.  The bill would appropriate from the General Fund an unspecified amount “as may be necessary” to effectuate its purposes.

In his veto message, Gov. Murphy said he recognized the need for home instruction at this time and stated his commitment to improve remote learning so that all students can participate in a virtual classroom. However, he also stated his hesitance in authorizing such legislation with an open-ended appropriation, which could cost millions of dollars.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profoundly negative impact on the state’s economy and finances.  In order to ensure sufficient cash flows are available to meet emergency and statutorily required obligations through the end of the fiscal year, over $1 billion in items of appropriation have been placed into reserve since March.

Murphy explained that federal assistance may be available to achieve the purposes contemplated in the bill.  The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (“ESSERF”) provides funding to address the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on elementary and secondary schools across the country.  New Jersey’s ESSERF allocation totals over $310 million.  At least 90% of the funding (approximately $280 million) will be allocated by the NJDOE to local districts to provide educational services to their students. A maximum of ten percent of the ESSERF allocation may be reserved for state-level “emergency needs . . . to address issues responding to coronavirus.”

The ESSERF funds allocated to the districts will be used at the districts’ discretion and in accordance with their local needs.  For those districts whose students lack the equipment or technology necessary to fully implement remote learning plans, the ESSERF funds will be available to assist them in the purchase of laptops, tablets, hot spot access, and other devices for the students who need them. The district allocation formula established by the federal government is based on economic need.  “This should further enhance the ability of those districts with the largest number of children living in poverty to bridge the so-called digital divide,” said Murphy in his message.

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