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Pennsylvania School District Threatens Foster Care Placement Over Lunch Debt

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  • A Pennsylvania school district sent letters to over three dozen parents who had accumulated a school meal debt of $10 or more, warning them to pay the balance or risk having their child placed in foster care.
  • The local social services agency criticized the school for “weaponizing” the foster care system to scare families into paying lunch bills.
  • The president of the district’s board of education said the letters may have been strong, but they worked. 
  • Meanwhile, the vice president of the school board said the letters were not approved by the superintendent and is calling a meeting to discuss the issue, but said future letters will be less threatening.  

Debt Letter Sent 

A Pennsylvania school district faced backlash for sending letters to parents this month, warning them to pay off their children’s school lunch debt otherwise they may face consequences that could result in their child being placed in foster care. 

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” the letter from Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District, read.

“This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.” the letter continued.

Wyoming West Valley School District – The New York Times

The letters were sent out to those with a balance of at least $10 or more.

Outrage Over Foster Care Threat 

Parents in Luzerne County did not respond well to the threat from the school district and the letter soon made national headlines. But the mention of foster care also pulled Luzerne County Children and Youth Services into the issue.

“The Luzerne County Children and Youth Foster Care System is NOT utilized to scare families into paying school lunch bills,” Joanne Van Saun, director of the local agency, wrote in a letter to the district’s superintendent. 

“We exist to protect and preserve families. The only time a child is taken out is when they cannot be maintained safely in their home,” she later told CNN. “Our agency has helped many children and families with paying rent and buying clothes. We know children do better when they’re with their families.”

Van Saun added that she felt “blindsided” by the district’s letter, especially since the district and the agency have had a good relationship with one another in the past. “The way they handled it was totally inappropriate, unnecessary and could’ve easily been resolved through so many different avenues.” she said. 

C. David Pedri, Luzerne county manager, also wrote the district a letter complaining about the notice.“It weaponizes Luzerne County’s foster care system,” Pedri said on Saturday in a statement to The New York Times. “It’s exactly what we’re not here to do. The foster care system is here to help kids who are abused.”

“Taking a kid out of a house is one of the most extreme things that a foster care system has ever tried to do,” he added. “So you don’t do it lightly. We would never take a kid out of a house for failing to pay a school lunch bill.”

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey even called the letters “callous,” adding, “No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically.” 

Mixed Responses From Officials

According to CNN, Wyoming Valley’s Cafeteria Purchase Charging and Insufficient Funds Policy says nothing about parents potentially going to court or losing their children. However, it does state that families with a student account that reaches negative $10 or more will receive “an automated call every Friday” until the remaining balance is paid. 

After being identified by WNEP as the person who penned the letter, Joseph Muth told the news station that it was a “last resort” effort to deal with the roughly $22,000 in debt that the district had accumulated. 

Joseph Mazur, the president of the district’s board of education, told NPR that the district had tried contacting parents by mail, email, robocalls, and personal calls, before the notice, but nothing worked. 

Mazur then defended the letter saying: “I think you have to pay your bills. I mean, I’ve been paying my bills all my life. So has everybody else. I mean sometimes you have to do without something for yourself if you want to raise your kids and see that they’re taken care of.”

“We are in the process of trying to save money wherever we can. We have laid off some employees. We have reduced some of our curriculum. And we’re looking anywhere we can save,” Mazur said. “I don’t care if it’s $1,000 or $20,000.”

Mazur did note that all students in the district received a meal. “Every poor kid got a meal,” Mazur said. “If the Board of Directors was mean and cruel they’d just honestly say, ‘stop the lunches,’ but we didn’t.”

“Was the letter a little strong? Maybe yes,” Mazur added. “But it did work, because they’re paid now.”

However, David Usavage, vice president of the school board, told the Times on Saturday that he received about six phone calls complaining about the letter. He also added that when he first read the notice, he thought it was a “joke.”

The letter “was not approved by anyone,” Usavage said. “We have a policy that says everything should go through the superintendent.”

It is not uncommon for the district to mail letters to parents, asking them to pay debts, but the language has always been “softer,” he said.

Usavage explained that the notice was written by Muth and the district’s lawyer, Charles R Coslett. Usavage said Muth has since apologized over the notice, but did not release any information about potential consequences for the two. 

Usavage also provided the Times with more information about the district’s debt, saying that the district, which is made up of seven different schools, serves school meals that cost between $1 to $2.70 to about 5,000 children.

“We have never denied anyone because they don’t have money,” he said. “We would never, ever allow a child to go hungry.”

However, Usavage said that 960 students had accumulated a debt of five cents up to $9.99. Parents of 40 children owed $10 or more and parents of four students owed more than $440. 

For now, Usavage said he would call a special meeting with the school board to discuss the issue, but said future letters will be less threatening.

“I don’t want the people who live in the Wyoming Valley West School District to think we are so classless as to send out a letter threatening parents,” he said. “I can assure you we will not take one child or one parent to any kind of court to get back the money.”

For the coming school year, the district will qualify for funding to provide free lunches to all students. regardless of their family’s financial need. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (NPR)

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Amazon Backs GOP Bill to Legalize Marijuana in Effort to Ramp Up Lobbying

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The proposal is the first Republican-sponsored marijuana bill Amazon has backed since the company first began lobbying for legalization last summer.


Amazon Endorses States Reform Act

Amazon announced Tuesday that it is endorsing a Republican-backed proposal to legalize marijuana.

The move comes as the e-commerce giant has ramped up its efforts to legalize cannabis on the federal level since it came out in support of the idea last summer. Amazon argues that the move would remove hiring barriers — which disproportionately impact people of color — and, in turn, could increase the company’s application pool and boost employee retention.

The company has previously backed similar proposals by forward by Democrats, but Tuesday’s announcement marks the first time Amazon has put its support behind a Republican-sponsored bill aimed at addressing the issue.

The legislation, called the States Reform Act, was authored by Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). Among other measures, it would remove cannabis as a Schedule I substance, allow states to create their own laws, impose an excise tax, and regulate the drug in a similar fashion to alcohol.

While Mace’s bill is fundamentally very similar to others put forth by Democrats, by proposing it herself, the Republican hopes to rally other members of her party around the idea that legalization is pro-business, pro-state’s rights, and anti-big government.

The measure has already received support from the highly influential conservative group, American’s for Prosperity, which is funded by the Koch brothers.

Potential Momentum

Mace and Amazon have painted the company’s endorsement as a game-changer for garnering more support — both from other large corporations and politicians on either side of the aisle. Mace specifically told reporters she believes Amazon’s decision will push other companies to do the same. If more major corporations like Amazon back the effort, other Republicans may be more persuaded to jump on board.

That sentiment was echoed by Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, who said in an interview with The Washington Post that the company was “particularly excited by Congresswoman Mace’s bill because it shows that there’s bipartisan support for this issue.”

Huseman also emphasized that, as part of its decision to back her bill, Amazon will use its powerful influence in Washington to try and drum up bipartisan support.

“We are talking with members of both parties, including Republicans, about why we think this is the right thing to do, especially from the standpoint of a major employer and what this means for our business and our employees and broadening the employee base,” he continued.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Forbes) (Marijuana Moment)

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CDC Data Shows Booster Shots Provide Effective Protection Against Omicron

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Public health experts have encouraged Americans to get boosted to protect themselves against the omicron variant, but less than 40% of fully vaccinated people who are eligible for their third shot have received it.


A First Glimpse of Official Data on Boosters and Omicron

COVID-19 booster shots are effective at preventing Americans from contracting omicron and protecting those who do become infected from severe illness, according to three reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published Friday.

The reports mark the first real-world data regarding the highly infectious variant and how it has impacted the U.S.

One of the CDC reports, which studied data from 25 state and local health departments, found that there were 149 cases per 100,000 people among those had been boosted on average each week. 

In comparison, the figure was 255 cases per 100,000 people in Americans who had only received two shots.

Another study that looked at nearly 88,000 hospitalizations in 10 states found that the third doses were 90% effective at preventing hospitalization. 

By contrast, those who received just two shots were only 57% protected against hospitalization by the time they were eligible for a booster six months after their second dose.

Additionally, the same report also found that the boosters were 82% effective at preventing visits to emergency rooms and urgent care centers, a marked increase from the 38% efficacy for those who were six months out from their two-shot regime and had not yet received a third.

Low Booster Shot Vaccination Rates

Public health officials hope that the new data will urge more Americans to get their booster shots.

Since the emergence of omicron, experts and leading political figures have renewed their efforts to encourage people to get their third shots, arguing they are the best form of protection. 

The CDC currently recommends that everyone 12 and older get a booster shot five months after their second shot of Pfizer and Moderna or two months after receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Still, in the U.S., less than 40% of fully vaccinated individuals eligible for a third shot have gotten one.

While COVID cases in the country have begun to drop over the past several days from their peak of over 800,000 average daily infections, the figures are still nearly triple those seen in the largest previous surges.

Hospitalizations have also slowly begun to level out over the last week in places that were hit first, such as New York City and Boston, but medical resources still remain strained in many parts of the country that experienced later surges and have not yet seen cases slow.

Some experts predict that the U.S. will see a sharp decline in omicron cases, as experienced in South Africa and Britain. Still, they urge American’s to get boosted to ensure their continued protection from the variant, as well as other strains that will emerge.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (CNN) (The New York Times)

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California Bill Would Allow Kids 12 and Up to Get Vaccinated Without Parental Consent

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Nearly one million California teens and preteens between the ages of 12 and 17 are not vaccinated against COVID-19. 


State Senator Proposes Legislation

Legislation proposed in California on Thursday would allow children age 12 and up to get vaccinated without parental consent. 

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced Bill 866 in the hope it could boost vaccination rates among teenagers. According to Wiener, nearly one million kids aged 12- to 17-years old remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 in the state of California. 

“Unvaccinated teens are at risk, put others at risk & make schools less safe,” Wiener tweeted. “They often can’t work, participate in sports, or go to friends’ homes.”

“Many want to get vaccinated but parents won’t let them or aren’t making the time to take them. Teens shouldn’t have to rely on parents’ views & availability to protect themselves from a deadly virus.”

Currently, teens in California can receive vaccines for human papillomavirus and hepatitis B without parental consent. They can also make other reproductive or mental healthcare choices without a guardian signing off. Wiener argues that their medical autonomy should expand to all vaccines, especially during a pandemic that has already killed roughly 78,000 Californians. 

Vaccine Consent Across the U.S.

“Teens shouldn’t have to plot, scheme or fight with their parents to get a vaccine,” he said. “They should simply be able to walk in & get vaccinated like anyone else.”

Bill 866 would allow any kids ages 12 and up to receive any vaccine approved or granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, Pfizer’s COVID vaccine has been fully approved by the FDA for those 16 and older. It has received emergency authorization for ages five through 15. 

Across the United States, vaccine consent ages vary. While the vast majority of states require parental approval for minors to be vaccinated against COVID-19, kids as young as 11 can get the jab on their own in Washington, D.C. In Alabama, kids can receive it without parental consent at 14, in Oregon at 15, and in Rhode Island and South Carolina at 16. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, providers can waive consent in certain cases in Arkansas, Idaho, Washington, and Tennesee.

In October, California became the first state to announce plans to require that students receive the COVID-19 vaccine to attend class. The mandate has yet to take effect, but under the guidelines, students will be “required to be vaccinated for in person learning starting the term following FDA full approval of the vaccine for their grade span.” 

In other words, once the FDA gives a vaccine full approval for those aged 12 and up, it will be required the following session for kids in grades 7-12. Once it does so for kids as young as five, the same process will happen for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. There will also be room for exemptions from the mandate. 

The Fight to Vaccinate California

This week, a group of California state legislators formed a Vaccine Work Group in order to boost public health policies in the state. Wiener is among the several members who are “examining data, hearing from experts, and engaging stakeholders to determine the best approaches to promote vaccines that have been proven to reduce serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.”

“Vaccines protect not only individuals but also whole communities when almost everyone is vaccinated at schools, workplaces and businesses, and safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines have already prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans,” Sen. Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) said in a press release. “Public safety is a paramount duty of government, and I am proud to join a talented group of legislators in the pro-science Vaccine Work Group who want to end this disastrous pandemic and protect Californians from death and disability by preventable diseases.”

While vaccine policies have been a divisive subject nationwide, including in California, state politicians and leaders are hopeful public health initiatives will prevail. 

“If we allow disinformation to drive our state policy making we will not only see more Americans needlessly suffer and die, but we will sacrifice the long term stability of our society having effectively abandoned the idea that we all must work together to protect each other in times of crisis.” Catherine Flores Martin, the Executive Director of the California Immunization Coalition, added. 

See what others are saying: (Los Angeles Times) (NBC News) (Sacramento Bee)

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