As former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders faced off Sunday in the first debate with only two Democratic presidential candidates, concerns about the new coronavirus dominated the discussion — including how the country should feed students whose schools will be shuttered for weeks and how to help parents in desperate need of child care.
Both Biden and Sanders spoke about plans they announced earlier this week to tackle the coronavirus pandemic that has closed schools in most of the nation’s largest school districts and in more than two dozen states.
“You’ve got schools all over this country now being shut down,” Sanders said. “How are we going to make sure that the kids do well in this crisis, not become traumatized? What do we do about the parents now who have to stay home with the kids and can’t go to work? Bottom line here is that in this crisis, we have got to start paying attention to the most vulnerable.”
“We should be surging help to those places which are the most vulnerable,” Biden agreed. “How do you make sure when you close that school, those children are going to be able to get the school food program? I propose that all of that be covered, and it’s going to take a multi-, multi-billion dollar program to do that.”
Biden’s coronavirus relief plan calls for emergency paid sick, family, and medical leave and child care for parents affected by school closures. It also calls for more federal assistance for child care centers and schools — especially those that serve mostly students from low-income families — to help them pay for extra costs and offer remote education due to coronavirus-related school closures.
In a Thursday speech, Sanders also called for emergency paid sick, family, and medical leave, expanding the federal school lunch program, and providing more funding for the federal program that helps low-income families buy food. He also called for emergency shelter for college students who have had to vacate their dorms as schools closed.
Some of those proposals are part of legislation making its way through Congress now, known as the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” which passed the House on Saturday and is expected to be voted on in the Senate early this week.
The bill would provide two weeks of paid sick leave and up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to employees of smaller businesses and government workers. (The New York Times estimates that could still exclude nearly 20 million American workers.)
The legislation would also clear the way for schools to serve free meals in different settings — like at “grab and go” sites — and to allow states to offer additional food assistance to low-income students whose schools close for at least five days due to the new coronavirus, Education Week reported.
President Trump has already indicated he would sign the bill.
“The school closures are very important, but it causes a lot of problems,” he said at a Saturday press conference. “The bill that we signed yesterday takes care of a lot of those problems, with children staying at home and the parents are working. Now it has to go through the Senate, I have to sign it, but that will happen.”