West Virginia’s most-populous school system announced early Monday evening that it’s restarting its child feeding program Wednesday, but will now only be distributing once a week and giving out meals for multiple days.
The Kanawha County school system had abruptly halted its daily feeding program Monday, a week after it garnered public praise for swiftly enacting a system of deliveries via school bus and providing meals for kids and parents to pick up at each school during the continued statewide school shutdown.
“We will distribute three days’ worth of meals, for Wednesday through Friday, on Wednesday,” the county school system announced in a Monday robocall to parents.
They will be delivered at bus stops. Starting next week, five days’ worth of meals will be provided every Monday at bus stops.
“We heard from many of our service employees who were understandably nervous about continuing to go into work while the coronavirus continues to spread in our immediate community,” school system spokeswoman Briana Warner wrote in an email.
“Administrators tried to come up with a solution yesterday, however we were unable to do so,” she wrote. “Today, our administrators have been working all day to come up with a plan that feeds our students while still keeping in mind the health and safety of our employees.”
The school system tweeted earlier Monday that some employees were starting to not show up to work due to fears for their own safety.
The school system announced the abrupt halt — unaccompanied by any details on a plan going forward — through a Sunday night robocall. The robocall gave a vague rationale, and Monday’s statements were a correction to it.
State schools Superintendent Clayton Burch also issued the following guidance Sunday to all counties:
“At this point, let me be clear: Do not ask staff to be present in schools unless they are volunteering for meal preparation and distribution,” Burch said. “Move to a multi-day supply to be available one-or-two days a week. Use community volunteers and work with private vendors to help with food and supply preparation. Be safe and employ social distancing and rigorous cleaning and sanitizing protocols.”
Burch said Monday that “as soon as we saw that this was really moving toward a really long-term issue, and not the two weeks we initially thought … we were not going to be able to keep up full food preparation every single day at every single location.”
Christy Day, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said “we are hoping to have a recommendation soon” on how long schools should stay closed. The original mandatory closure period expires after Friday.
Burch said “you really only need your staff to come in one, maybe two days a week,” so they can box up nonperishables. He said cooking isn’t necessary.
He said families could also be given frozen food packages to use at home.
The West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, a union that represents workers like cooks, bus drivers and custodians, was pushing for the state superintendent’s new guidance.
Joe White, the union’s executive director, said many of these workers are in their 60s or 70s.
He said he had volunteered to deliver meals.
“I was handing meals off the bus to kids with their grandparents and stuff and I was going ‘Wait a minute, they might have the coronavirus, we don’t know,’” he said.
Adults are more at risk of dying from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, than children, who can nevertheless still be carriers.
White suggested that service personnel could instead watch training videos at home, or call families to check in on whether they need food. He said service personnel were being called in do things not related to feeding, like scrub floors and paint doors.
“Why would you disinfect a building and then have multiple people coming in that building, spreading potential germs and viruses around the building,” White said. “It was uncalled for.”
Ryan White, no relation to Joe and president of the Kanawha Board of Education, said county schools Superintendent Ron Duerring told him that “based on the fact that he was receiving some reluctance from some employees to come in, that he was going to shut it down today.”
“They were afraid of contracting the virus,” Ryan White said.
He said that Duerring said some elementary school principals were among those who expressed this reluctance. The school board president said he assumed the others were school service personnel.
He disagreed with Monday’s sudden halt.
“I think it’s important that we be the safest we can in stopping the spread of the virus, but I also think it’s important that we try to do what our essential function is,” he said.
He said he considers it essential to ensure that “students that need to get fed, get fed.”
“I am very appreciative of our employees that are helping us achieve that mission, and they’re taking risks,” he said.
He also objected to the reference to Republican Gov. Jim Justice in Sunday night’s robocall, and said he didn’t know who added that. It caused a kerfuffle Monday.
The Sunday robocall said the decision was due to “the governor’s direction for everyone to stay home and due to current conditions and limitations brought by the spread of COVID-19.”
Justice had urged social distancing, but he hadn’t ordered child feeding programs to cease.
On Monday morning, the school system issued a correction in a tweet, saying “the Governor did not have a part in our decision and we apologize for any misconception or misunderstanding that may blame any person for this cancellation.”
Despite the correction, Justice rebutted Kanawha’s statement in a news release distributed by the state Department of Education.
“Let me be clear: my direction to our schools was always that children must be fed. Not feeding children was not and is not an option,” Justice said in the release.
“In a letter yesterday to all 55 county superintendents, [Burch] proposed several ways to continue the programs while taking additional safety precautions,” Justice said. “Kanawha County Schools should explore these alternate methods and resume meals as soon as possible.”
Joe White, the union leader, said the very need for these feeding programs during a pandemic is sad. He noted that feeding kids was a priority from the start of the pandemic.
“Where are we at as a state to where that’s the only meal they have?” he said. “Where are we at?”