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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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As Unemployment Claims Rise, CA Officials Report Inmates Collected Millions in Benefits

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  • Unemployment numbers spiked for the second week in a row, marking the highest amount of new claims made since early October with 778,000 people filing. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
  • Experts say this will only get worse as COVID cases continue to rise and states impose more restrictions. However, unlike during the spring shutdowns, struggling Americans and small businesses will likely not have any help from the federal government.
  • Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in California reported that tens of thousands of inmates received upwards of $1 billion in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that officials described as “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”

Unemployment Numbers Spike

Another 778,000 Americans filed for unemployment this week, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday, marking the highest spike since early October and the second week in a row that new claims have risen.

According to experts, this data signals that the massive coronavirus spikes the U.S. has seen in recent weeks are slowing the economy once again. On Wednesday, the country reported a record 2 million new cases in the same two weeks that joblessness claims also went up, bringing the official case count to more than 12.6 million Americans infected and over 260,000 dead.

As the COVID-19 spikes continue, and with more state and local governments imposing new restrictions on public gatherings, limiting hours and operations for restaurants and bars, and temporarily closing down some businesses entirely, economists say this situation will get worse before it gets better.

Unlike the first wave of shutdowns this past spring, it seems almost certain that struggling Americans will have to weather these latest closures without any help from the government.

Already, many of the programs that gave trillions of dollars to unemployed Americans and small businesses under the CARES Act have expired, and most of the few remaining programs will run out soon.

That is especially concerning when it comes to unemployment benefits. According to a recent report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, unless Congress and the White House sign off on a deal to extend key programs, roughly 12 million Americans will lose these benefits entirely the day after Christmas.

But after months of deadlock, any hopes for a new stimulus package petered out when the election came around. Democratic leadership is reportedly attempting to restart those talks, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wants to approve some kind of bill before the end of the year. 

However, it remains unclear how all the problems that had deadlocked the lawmakers for months during the earlier negotiations will be resolved in time.

Inmate Unemployment Fraud

Meanwhile, states are still continuing to struggle with distributing unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.

On Tuesday, a task force lead by nine district attorneys across the state of California reported in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that tens of thousands of prison and jail inmates — including more than 100 people on death row — have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that the officials say “appears to be the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history,”

According to the task force, between March and August, inmates housed in every single California prison and in jails throughout the state filed 35,000 claims totaling at least $140 million in benefits, though the alleged crimes could total as much as $1 billion.

In most cases, officials said that the payments were given out in the form of prepaid debit cards sent to friends or family on the outside who would then later deposit the proceeds to inmate accounts.

In some cases, the joblessness benefits were sent directly to the jails and prisons. Sometimes the inmates used their real names, but other times, they used fake names and fake Social Security numbers.

In fact, prosecutors were tipped off to some of the cases by listening to inmates recorded phone calls, where they bragged about how easy it was the game the system.

As far as how such widespread fraud could happen, law enforcement officials blamed California’s Employment Development Department, which has been swamped with processing more than 16.4 million unemployment claims since March, resulting in a massive backlog of unfilled claims that, according to reports, has totaled upwards of more than 1.6 million people at times.

However, the task force also said that part of the problem was due to the fact that unlike at least 35 other states, California does not have the technology to crosscheck inmate rosters against unemployment claims.

Looking Forward

In their letter, the officials called on Newsom to crack down on the rampant fraud and provide “significant resources” to do so. 

Newsom, for his part, responded in a statement by calling the fraud “absolutely unacceptable,” and ordering the Office of Emergency Services to create a task force to help the prosecutors with their investigation.

However, as The New York Times pointed out, Newsom had already formed a “strike team” a few months ago to help the state’s employment department speed up claims and address other issues, including fraud at correctional facilities.

The district attorneys were still forced to form their own task force with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after the reports of fraud in the employment department continued and the “strike team” failed to uncover the large amounts of fraud the other groups had seen.

Currently, it is unclear how Newsom’s new task force is different from the largely unsuccessful “strike team.” 

California, of course, is not the only state having these issues with unemployment insurance fraud. There have also been similar reports of fraud in Massachusetts, Illinois, Kansas, and other states.

These problems also go beyond unemployment. There have been frequent reports of CARES Act funding being misused, including by people using small business loans to buy luxury cars, as well as large companies or businesses connected to President Donald Trump Trump and members of Congress improperly receiving funding.

As Congress considers another much-needed stimulus package, these issues of transparency and accountability have now become paramount. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (USA Today

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COVID-19 Cases Expected To Surge After Thanksgiving

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  • With coronavirus cases already on a steep rise in the U.S, experts are warning that Thanksgiving travel and gatherings will likely make things worse. Canada, for example, saw a jump in cases after its citizens celebrated the holiday last month.
  • Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that Americans should hold out for a vaccine, which is on the horizon, and be safe this Thanksgiving.
  • A family in Texas is also waring against gathering, saying they learned how dangerous it is the hard way. After celebrating a birthday together, all 15 people who attended the party tested positive for the virus.
  • On top of this experts are also warning against thinking a negative test clears you for socialization. In reality, you can test negative for the virus and still have and transmit it.

Warning From Surgeon General 

As Thanksgiving looms closer, warnings against family gatherings are being echoed by experts and everyday people alike. 

Health officials have been vocal about the threat the Thanksgiving holiday poses when it comes to the coronavirus. The U.S. has seen 12.4 million cases and lost 257,000 lives to the virus, and cases have been on a steep increase this month. The CDC has already warned against travel and experts have said that based on the spike Canada saw after its October Thanksgiving, America is set to go down a similar, or even worse path. 

“I want the American people to know that we are at a dire point in our fight with this virus by any measure,”  U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Monday on Good Morning America.Cases, positivity, hospitalizations, deaths. We’re seeing more Americans negatively impacted than ever before.” 

Adams said that with a vaccine on the horizon, Americans should just wait out this homestretch and stay put for the holiday.

“I’m asking Americans, begging you, hold on just a little bit longer,” he said. “Keep Thanksgiving and the celebration small and smart this year.” 

Family in Texas Urges Caution

Health officials are not the only ones preaching this advice. In Arlington, Texas, a family that has lived the consequences of gathering without regard for public health is urging people to not make the same mistake as them. The Aragonez family celebrated a birthday earlier this month indoors without masks or distancing. Now, all 15 people who attended tested positive for the virus. 

“We feel guilty for gathering,” members of the family said in a video encouraging caution. “All this pain that my family is feeling, this loneliness, this sickness, this longing to be healthy could have been prevented.” 

“Please don’t be like my family and ignore the CDC guidelines,” one person said. “By staying apart we can fight this virus together.” 

While most cases in the family were mild, one person was hospitalized for over a week.

“One moment of carelessness has cost us a month of peace, has cost us sleep, has cost us laughs, has cost us a lot of money,” one family member told the Washington Post. 

Testing Negative is Not Enough

Many have still forged on with their gathering plans under the false idea that if everyone tests negative before attending, they are in the clear to socialize. However, experts warn this is far from the case.

Just because a person tests negative does not necessarily mean they do not have the virus. Tests are not 100% accurate and it can take days or even a week to test positive for the virus after exposure. Not to mention, people could come into contract with the virus between their test and the family event. 

“A negative result is a snapshot in time,”  Dr. Paige Larkin, a clinical microbiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago explaining to the New York Times. “It’s telling you that, at that exact second you are tested, the virus was not detected. It does not mean you’re not infected.”

While it might slightly minimize the risk of spread, it certainly does not eliminate it. More than anything, it gives people a false sense of security that they have a free pass to go wherever and see whoever they want, despite the fact that it still poses a large health threat.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Washington Post) (Associated Press)

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Over 1 Million People Traveled Through U.S. Airports Friday, Despite COVID-19 Warnings

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  • Over 1 million people traveled through U.S. airports on Friday, marking the second-highest single day of airport traffic since the coronavirus pandemic began.
  • The new record comes despite the fact that the CDC has issued a warning against travel for Thanksgiving, encouraging people to stay home instead because COVID-19 cases are already on a steep rise.
  • In Canada, cases spiked after the country celebrated their Thanksgiving holiday in October.
  • While cases were already increasing in the country, contact tracing has linked outbreaks to holiday gatherings, which likely accelerated the speed of spread.

Cases and Travel Both Increase

The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is expected to worsen the already increasing coronavirus outbreak in the United States. 

Currently, the country has seen over 12.3 million cases and lost more than 256,000 lives to this virus. On Friday, the U.S. broke its record for new cases in a single day, reporting 198,500 cases. The daily average has reached 171,462 cases a day and roughly one-quarter of all cases in the U.S. have come from just the month of November. 

These circumstances paint a grim picture of what could come after all of the traveling and large gatherings that are expected to happen over the holiday, even after repeated warning against doing so.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned against traveling and advised that “postponing travel and staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others this year.”

The CDC told travelers to ask themselves questions, like if cases are high in their home or destination, if their method of travel makes social distancing difficult, and if there are travel restrictions in their area. If the answers to any of those questions are yes, people should “consider making other plans, such as hosting a virtual gathering or delaying your travel.”

Despite these warnings, air travel is on the rise in the country. On Friday, more than 1 million people passed through airports, marking the second-busiest day of air travel since the pandemic began. While this is 1.5 million people less than the same day last year, the travel surge troubles health officials who fear the virus could spread as people gather with their families. 

Case Spike After Canada’s Thanksgiving

All the U.S. has to do is look to its neighbor to the North in order to find out just what kind of impact Thanksgiving can have on coronavirus cases. Two weeks after Canada’s Thanksgiving in October, the country saw a spike in cases. While cases were already on the rise at the time, experts believe that holiday gatherings contributed to and accelerated the spread.

“Cases were indeed increasing already, but we definitely saw an increase in the rate of transmission after Thanksgiving. And we know that Thanksgiving is important for a couple of reasons. One is through contact tracing data,” Dr. Laura Rosella, an associate professor and epidemiologist at the University of Toronto told CBS News.

Contact tracing in the country showed a significant transmission from household gatherings stemming from Thanksgiving. 

“One local health unit that reported about 12 people being infected because of a Thanksgiving gathering,” Rosella explained. 

It’s not the only reason the cases are increasing, it’s not the only setting in which transmission is occurring, but definitely when people gathered indoors it did transmit COVID.”

Superspreading Events

Still, people are more likely to feel safe with their family, no matter how high the COVID-19 risk actually is. Superspreading weddings are among the strongest examples of this, as numerous have led to significant outbreaks because couples thought it was safe to gather with friends, family, and other people they trust.

“Many people don’t believe that you can actually catch it from your family and friends. They feel safe when they are around people that they know,” Karen Potts, the director of the Adams County Health Department in eastern Washington explained to NBC News. “And I think that’s why this sort of event happens. People just feel safe, and they go to the event, and it just spreads so rapidly.”

One August wedding in Maine, for instance, was liked to 177 coronavirus cases and 7 deaths. Many of those cases include people who did not attend the wedding. In fact, none of the deaths traced back to the wedding were attendees. 

An October wedding in Cincinnati led to 32 of the 83 guests getting COVID-19, including grandparents of the bride and groom. In Washington, a 300 person wedding earlier this month has led to 17 people getting the virus so far. 

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (NBC News) (Washington Post)

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