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In the final weeks before winter break, Minneapolis schools are broadcasting a widespread assignment. But it’s not homework for students — rather, it’s aimed at parents.

Applications for educational benefits — namely, free and reduced-priced lunch — are due to the schools by Dec. 15. But as of last Friday, more than 11,800 Minneapolis students had no application on file. Of those who had a completed application, about 44% qualified for free and reduced lunch, down from nearly 51% who applied and qualified at this time last year.

Given the state of the economy, district officials suspect there are more families in need and they want parents to fill out the forms detailing their financial situations.

The applications determine the number of students in need and dictate the allocation of state funding and the distribution of some federal money, including additional support for students who are falling behind.

“There are so many things, funding-wise, that depend on [that data] and we’re really trying to communicate that it’s more than a lunch form,” said Sara Eugene, the development and compliance coordinator for culinary and wellness services for Minneapolis Public Schools. “For some of our schools, each application is worth literally thousands of dollars so each one really does matter.”

In the midst of the pandemic, officials expect the percentage of qualifying families may rise — something not reflected in the numbers so far. In addition to social media posts and e-mails, Minneapolis schools are asking teachers and social workers to explain to parents the importance of completing the paperwork each year.

The Minnesota Department of Education is hearing from many school districts that have noticed a drop in applications for educational benefits, said Daron Korte, an assistant commissioner with the state Department of Education. That’s likely because during the pandemic, families are able to receive food through a federal program that makes free meals available to all students, regardless of income level.

Officials with the state Department of Education have encouraged districts to reach out to parents with information about the benefit applications’ effect on their schools.

That’s what Minneapolis has tried to do in social media posts and e-mails.

Beyond school funding and meals, the applications can also help connect students with additional discounts and resources on public transportation, internet services and participation in sports teams.

“Our messaging has changed to emphasize that [the application] is not just a lunch form,” Eugene said. “We know it can be intimidating for some families to provide their personal information, but we want them to understand exactly what this application is for.”

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440