Schools, Food Banks Prepare to Feed Children During Coronavirus-Forced Closure

(U.S. Air Force photo /Senior Airman Hailey Haux)

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama State Department of Education as well as food banks throughout the state are working to feed children when schools close next week in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Gov. Kay Ivey announced Friday that all public K-12 schools will be closed after Wednesday with the goal of reopening on Monday, April 6. Ivey also announced a state of emergency Friday.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey said students on free and reduced-price lunch will still be given meals during closures and food banks around the state said they are prepared to help with the need.

Several school systems have announced they would close as of Monday, earlier than the state-mandated closing. Those included Birmingham, Homewood, Hoover, Bessemer, Vestavia Hills, Jefferson County, Tarrant and Midfield. Mountain Brook schools technically are open, but plans will be firmed up to offer students distance learning the first half of the week.

Mackey said that closing schools down was the best way to help limit the spread of the virus that has swept the globe in less than four months, particularly affecting the elderly and those with chronic health conditions.

“Closing schools is a great way to limit transmissions. We don’t have cases in schools yet but it’s a great proactive step,” Mackey said.

He said that during the last week of March, the Alabama State Department of Education will reassess to determine whether continued closures are needed. He said they will be looking at the rate of infection in the state, where the outbreaks are occurring and whether they are clustered or widespread as measurements to determine whether schools should remain closed.

Due to the state of emergency, schools will not have to make up the missed days. Mackey said the action doesn’t apply to private schools, but he expects them to close as well.

Schools will not be required to do online classes or e-learning and Mackey cautioned students from congregating in large groups.

“The purpose of this (closure) is to give the virus more time and to mitigate the spread of this disease,” Mackey said.

Mackey also said the state will still provide free and reduced lunches to those students who are eligible during the closure. The state has applied for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue serving lunches to students of schools where more than 50% of students were deemed economically disadvantaged. Mackey said he was confident they would receive that waiver.

He said he wasn’t sure when those services would begin or what the logistics of getting food to the students would be. He said delivery services or drive-by pick up points could be a possibility.

Several school systems have announced that they will continue offering meals to students even though the schools are closed. For instance, the Birmingham system will be serving meals in the schools at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. every day starting Monday, the first days schools in that system will be closed.

Other school systems were making similar plans. Check their Facebook pages and websites for updates.

According to the State Department of Education, 364,216 students in Alabama receive free or reduced meals. About 26% of Alabama children live in poverty, which raises concerns about coronavirus-related closures and work stoppages that would hobble low-income workers.

The Food Bank of North Alabama assists 11 counties in supplying food for underserved communities and helps provide students meals in the summer

Shirley Schofield, the executive director, on Friday said it has been taking proactive measures in light of the virus, and there is a plan in place to help students in case of closures.

“In times like this we will go ahead and buy some stuff in advance knowing that we’ll probably have to have extra food on hand and available,” Schofield said. “We’ve made purchases and we’re supposed to be getting that in early next week.”

Schofield said the food bank’s supply usually comes from donations from grocery stores such as Walmart, Publix, Kroger, Aldi and Whole Foods. But to prepare for an outbreak, it started purchasing food to ensure they are fully stocked.

She said special procedures such as a drive by pantry may be implemented where families could pick up groceries without leaving their cars, to limit large congregating crowds.

Elizabeth Wix is the director of partnership at Community Food Bank of Central Alabama and said it plans on continuing services to help its communities and students in need.

“We are currently working with our administrators at our schools as to what they want to do and how to best meet the needs for their families,” Wix said. “But yes, we plan to help them out as much as we can.”

The food bank serves Blount, Calhoun, Cherokee, Clay, Cleburne, Etowah, Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, Talladega, Walker and Winston counties. It helps more than 230 food pantries and shelters across those counties by supplying food and resources when needed.

Wix said the food bank has maintained its usual food safety standards and plans to abide by recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alabama Department of Health on containing the spread of the virus.

Schofield said she was confident in the ability to address the state’s needs, but depending on how long these containment measures last, some additional help may be needed.

“Depending on how long this will go on, additional resources will certainly be helpful but we will do our best to prioritize where the help is needed and get it there as quickly as we can,” Schofield said.

Harris said during Friday’s press conference that people need to be aware and practice basic normal hygiene but not to panic about the spread of the virus.

“I don’t think people need to be frightened at all,” Harris said. “Together we will be able to get through this.”

If you would like to donate to the Northern Alabama Food Bank in Huntsville you can find more information here on how to donate food or volunteer.

You can learn more about how to donate to the Central Alabama Food Bank here.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath and can appear two to 14 days after exposure. The ADPH has said that people who believe they have the virus should first call their primary care physicians. The state is working to set up screening centers where more people can be tested.