Schools step up to the plate during COVID-19 closings

Henry County School cafeteria personnel prepare lunches for delivery during a state-wide school closure. (By Monica Hatchett)

By Brandon Martin

In response to the continual spread of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered public and private school closures for K-12 students on March 23.

The mandate took effect at midnight on March 24 and will last for the remaining of the school year.

The school closures provide extra strain on families of students who rely on free or reduced price lunches but schools in Martinsville, and Henry and Patrick counties are stepping up to the plate.

Henry and Patrick counties are also offering options to students via a survey link shared on their respective social media and website pages.

The link for Henry County allows for families to have meals delivered to them by bus.

Families were required to complete a survey to allow cafeteria and bus personnel to plan accordingly and Henry County Public Schools’ Director of Communications and Organizational Learning Monica Hatchett said the first week was a great success.

The first week of the closure, “we served approximately 1,200 students on Wednesday,” she said.

After schools were closed for the remainder of the academic year, Hatchett said that the division “expects to continue meal deliveries until the end of our school year, in May, and then shift to our traditional summer meals program.”

Hatchett also said that the schools were able to adapt to the novelty of the situation

“Wednesday was our first day and there was a learning curve simply because staff members were running bus routes that were not their typical route, cafeteria staff members had to prepare and transport supplies to neighboring schools, etc,” she said. The next delivery day “was much more efficient because the team leaders had streamlined their processes and we had better idea of what delivery was going to look like for each area.”

The hard work paid off for the school personnel and Hatchett said the program has been positively received.

“So many families have reached out to share their gratitude for this service and we have had many community members volunteer to join our staff in delivering meals,” she said. “We are working to make sure that those who did not initially register are also added to the routes, so we expect our number to grow a little more by Monday as well.”

Patrick County again offered breakfast and lunch, packaged together, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday for the week of March 23-27 following successes from last week. The link allows families to choose their pick-up location from a list of the county’s schools or to contact the student’s school if pick-up is not an option for the family.

Patrick County Schools Superintendent Dean Gilbert also said that the school system will also have to reevaluate their meal plan at the end of the week.

Martinsville City School Nutrition Services began offering free lunches and a snack to students 18 years-old or younger on March 18, with plans to continue until at least until 27.

“We have approval to continue the program until Friday, March 27,” said Parker Gunn, communications and community outreach coordinator for Martinsville City Public Schools. “We plan to make a decision this week as to whether we will apply for additional weeks. Everything is contingent on what the governor and State Superintendent for Education advises School Superintendents. At the present time, Martinsville does have the resources needed to continue serving the community.”

The meals were provided in to-go bags or boxes. To receive the meal, a student must be present; parents and caregivers were not allowed to pick up the meals for the students. Adults may purchase meals for $3.50.

The to-go meals could be picked up between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at Patrick Henry Elementary School on 1810 East Church Street and at Albert Harris Elementary School on 710 Smith Road in Martinsville.

The city also deployed school buses to deliver meals along normal bus routes during the same time period as the pick-up locations.

“The program has been well received in the community and the smiles on the children’s faces as well as the parents has been rewarding,” Gunn said. “The students have been so excited to see us each day. This program’s success has been a partnership between the School Nutrition program and the Transportation Department. The strong partnership has made the program a success.  The meals wouldn’t have been delivered without our phenomenal bus drivers and bus aides. We are grateful that we have been able to provide this service to our students/families and look forward to continuing the program.”

Some relief may also come from the federal government as well following the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in the House of Representatives on March 14. The bill still has to pass the Senate and has received support from President Donald Trump.

If passed, the act would provide a general provision that allows the Department of Agriculture to approve state plans providing emergency Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) food assistance to households that would normally receive free or reduced-priced meals if their schools weren’t closed due to COVID-19. In order to be eligible, the student’s school must have been closed for no less than five consecutive days.

The act also allocates $500 million to provide access to nutritious meals to low-income pregnant women or mothers with younger children who are laid off or who lose their jobs because of COVID-19.

It also provides $400 million to assist local food banks meet the increased demand for low-income Americans. Of the funds, $300 million will go to actually purchasing the foods and the additional $100 million will go to storage and distribution costs.




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