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Arizona Schools Use Data, P-EBT Program for Student Meals

Arizona school districts made use of an API system offered by education research nonprofit Ed-Fi Alliance to identify and assist more than 550,000 students in need of free meals during school closures.

Millions of K-12 students across the U.S. were in danger of losing access to free meals after COVID-19 forced schools to close their doors last year. In Arizona, school districts turned to pickup and delivery options to continue providing those meals where possible, but for others, they were able to coordinate with the state’s Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, an extension of EBT benefits, for additional food support.

With the P-EBT program already in place, state education officials used an API-enabled data system from the education research nonprofit Ed-Fi Alliance to quickly collect data from local districts so they could identify and locate student families eligible for P-EBT benefits. The system also allowed the state to receive regular updates on eligibility changes for these families bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 economic fallout and not always able to pick up free meals.

According to state officials, nearly 600,000 students in Arizona received free or reduced-price school meals at the beginning of the pandemic. Many of these students lived in remote rural regions, and among the state’s indigenous population.

By May 2020, officials had issued more than 550,000 P-EBT cards.

Ed-Fi Alliance Manager of Strategic Partnerships Maureen Wentworth said the data system shares information in real time between local districts and the Arizona Department of Education to help get P-EBT funds to low-income families as promptly as possible.

“State education agencies have requirements to collect a number of different data elements in terms of attendance and demographics, in order to understand the student population so they can distribute dollars back to districts,” she said. “Part of that is gathering accurate and up-to-date data to support free and reduced-price lunch populations across the state so they can distribute that funding.

“In a state that’s not utilizing a data standard, you would see files being transferred on a semi-regular basis — sometimes quarterly, sometimes monthly — so there’s a latency of that information,” she added.

Ed-Fi collects data from each district’s student information system, which Wentworth described as the “heartbeat” of a district’s data collection efforts. Wentworth said the Ed-Fi real-time data exchange system allows state officials to immediately find out who is eligible for cards, when their status changes or when student families move. 

The district’s information goes to the Arizona Department of Education and the Department of Economic Security, which administers the benefit.

“Being able to utilize the Ed-Fi data standard means that the district can still operate on whichever student information system they choose to use, and the API that connects the student information system with the state agency collection system is managed to enable that real-time connection,” she said. “As that data gets updated regularly and securely by the district in the source system, there is an element of quality embedded in that, because it is verified and updated by those who are closest to the data and transferred in real time.”

Britto Augustine, who had been the Arizona Department of Education’s CTO until this month, said this data interoperability played a critical role in distributing P-EBT funds to students’ families. He said the process allowed families to bypass a manual sign-up and verification process.

“When the world shut down in March of 2020, hundreds of thousands of students faced the possibility of losing access to the school meals on which they depended,” he said in an email to Government Technology. “In the state of Arizona, our existing IT infrastructure and operability powered by the Ed-Fi Alliance enabled us to quickly identify where at-risk students were located to promptly and efficiently provide them with P-EBT cards.”

Wentworth said the effort to streamline data was especially crucial in Arizona, a largely rural state where families without P-EBT cards could expect longer travel distances for meal pickup services. 

“It’s not just about lunch delivered to one single student; it is money in the pockets of the family that can be stretched across multiple children needing support,” she said of the P-EBT program. 

According to the Return to Learn Tracker (R2L), developed by the American Enterprise Institute and College Crisis Initiative of Davidson College, nearly 5 percent of districts in Arizona were engaged in full remote learning as of last month.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.