The ‘new normal’: With schools closed, Durham educators focus on feeding students, families

By: - March 25, 2020 5:30 am
Southwest Elementary School Principal Nick Rotosky stands in the rain to direct traffic Monday. Southwest is one of the sites families can visit for meals and to get supplemental learning materials. (Photo by Greg Childress)

The weather was unkind Monday, the first day Durham Public Schools offered lunches to thousands of students forced to stay home due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Temperatures dipped into the mid-40s after a mild weekend, and a cold rain was heaviest between 10:30 a.m., and noon, when meals and educational materials are offered to families across the district. 

DPS spokesman William Sudderth said that district-wide, 5,571 lunches and an equal number of snacks were served on Monday to 67 schools and community sites. At Southwest Elementary School, Principal Nick Rotosky stood in a steady rain and directed traffic through the makeshift drive-through lane set up at the rear of the school. Cafeteria workers bagged lunches of sandwiches, fruit, milk and snacks. Teachers sifted through boxes of printed lesson materials searching for grade-appropriate learning resource packets to deliver with lunches. 

Rotosky estimated that on Monday the school served 92 meals to families and delivered 200 packages of printed learning materials, the latter of which helps families who don’t have computers or internet access and can’t access materials online.

“A lot of people didn’t come for food,” Rotosky said. “They did come for learning resources.”

The scene at Southwest provided a snapshot of what’s happening across DPS and statewide, as school districts adjust to what many educators are calling the “new normal. 

“It’s a different time and its uncharted territory,” Rotosky said. “We’re just glad we can continue to support our families and our kids because they need us.”

On March 16, Gov. Roy Cooper announced schools would close for several weeks, raising concerns about how to feed students who rely on schools for meals. Nearly 60% of the state’s 1.5 million students received free or reduced-priced lunches during the 2017-18 school year.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson said more than 1,000 locations are serving meals. More than 1 million meals were served last week, he said. 

“Superintendents across this state are acutely aware of how important it will be to continue to provide child nutrition services over the extended closure,” Patrick Miller, the 2019-20 State Superintendent of the Year from Greene County, said in a statement 

The federal government granted a waiver to North Carolina, giving schools greater flexibility in how school lunches are served. The waiver, for example, allows parents to pick up meals from designated sites. DPS and many districts are using school buses to deliver meals, snacks and printed lessons.

The Wake County Public School System, the state’s largest school district, began providing hot lunches and cold breakfasts to students on March 17.  

A box of supplemental learning material was offered at Parkwood Elementary School. (Photo by Greg Childress)

“This is extremely important,” Wake County school board chairman Keith Sutton told The News & Observer earlier this month. “This was one of the, quite frankly, main concerns that we had about making the decision to close, that we would be sending kids home who oftentimes depend on the meals that they receive at school as part of their daily nutrition.”

The new normal” educators refer to is going to last longer than many had expected. The number of positive COVID-19 tests has increased dramatically over the past week, and on Monday, Gov. Cooper signed an executive order that will keep North Carolina’s schools closed until at least May 15.  

There were nearly 300 positive tests reported in the state Monday. That number had grown to almost 400 early Tuesday. 

“I’m not ready to give up on this year of school, however we know that the effects of this pandemic will not subside anytime soon,” Cooper said during a Monday press conference to update North Carolinians on COVID-19. 

On Tuesday, Cooper appeared to dig in for the long haul by directing $50 million in funding flexibility to the state’s public schools during the COVID-19 crisis. The flexibility is intended to support schools by allowing them to direct funding to students’ greatest needs, including providing them meals during the crisis. 

“We are working together to provide programs and resources to ensure the continued health, safety, and education of North Carolina students,” Cooper said. “By allowing fund flexibility our school systems can use funds where it benefits students and families most by continuing to provide meals, improving distance learning, child care and much more.” 

Staff at Parkwood Elementary School prepare for students and their families. (Photo by Greg Childress)

The State Board of Education  and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction will establish the $50 million flexible allotment  from unused funds from the current and previous school years as well as the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund. 

A learning experience’ 

Ashley Andre, a second-grade teacher at Southwest, said the past few weeks have been a “learning experience.” 

“I’m thankful there are opportunities for kids to get access to materials and food as well,” Andre said. 

On Tuesday, at Parkwood Elementary School, Marco Martinez, 14, arrived with his father and two sisters to pick up food and learning materials. They waited patiently in the family car while a team of cafeteria workers, teachers, social workers and bus drivers prepared to hand off meals and lessons.

Marco Martinez, a Durham middle school student, stopped by Parkwood Elementary School with his family on Tuesday to pick up meals and learning materials for his younger sister.

“We’re here to try to get a little more food and one of those learning packets [for his 7-year-old sister who attends Parkwood],” said Martinez, a student at Lowe’s Grove Elementary School. 

Martinez said the school closure has been tough on the family. “We have to stay at home most of the time,” he said. “We’re learning. My oldest sister has her own school she’s running now [at home]. She’s making us learn different things we would learn at school.”  

At Parkwood, 64% of students receive free or reduced-price lunches. About 21% of the school’s students are Latinx. 

Victor Hiraldo, a community liaison and school district interpreter, said the chaos caused by school closure has been especially difficult for Latinx families. “Many of them don’t speak the language [English] and when they don’t speak the language, they just have one connection to the school and that is us [the district’s seven interpreters], Hiraldo said.

He said interpreters have worked to calm parents worried about education, food and the threat of COVID-19. 

“We’re receiving a lot of calls, and we’re letting them know that we are here for them during this process and that any question they have, they can come to us and we’ll be here to help them cope with the situation,” Hiraldo said. 

Kim Fearrington, assistant principal at Parkwood Elementary School, talks with a family picking up lunches and learning materials at the school on Tuesday (Photo by Greg Childress)

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.