Schools have closed, but students' meals, learning continue

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Teresa Arnold, an employee of Sodexo, takes a lunch request from a student March 19 in the parking lot of Hallmark Homes at Malphrus in Bluffton. Bus driver Ethel Mitchell said they had handed out 160 breakfasts and 266 lunches that day. Since then, the d

Always have a Plan B.

For many of the county's school-age students, the meals served for breakfast and lunch are the mainstay of their diets. In the summer, various "backpack" programs help fill in the gap for many, but when school is not in session, they go without.

The week before South Carolina's schools were closed by Gov. Henry McMaster on March 15 in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Beaufort County School District's student nutrition team went into action.

The team began brainstorming, including Sodexo, a private-sector food industry contractor for the school district, according to district spokesman Jim Foster. The result was a plan in which Sodexo would continue to prepare meals for students, with an outline of when and where those meals would be picked up by students and their parents.

Now, in week three of school closure, Sodexo's staff of 60 prepares the food as they would normally: using the district's kitchens and equipment.

Breakfast items vary and might include cereal with milk, fruit, cereal bars, milk and juice. Lunches are sandwiches, fruit, fresh vegetables and milk.

"This situation is like nothing any of us has seen in our lifetimes, and it's been tremendously encouraging to see how our school district employees and our families have come together as a team to get through it as safely as possible," said BCSD Superintendent Frank Rodriguez. "There are so many moving parts that it's a virtual certainty we will encounter challenges along the way, but we'll meet those challenges together."

Bus drivers and Sodexho employees continue to deliver the meals to various curbside meal stops, expanded from the first week's routes to cover the entire county.

On a normal school day, student meal costs are determined by their family's income. Some students pay full cost, some pay a reduced fee and others eat free.

"During our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all children are eating free and USDA is reimbursing all costs," said Foster.

The initial schedule called for making two trips to pick up breakfast and then lunch daily. Children 18 and younger had to be in the car with the parents in order to pick up the meals. The revised process still requires children to be present, but now both meals will be handed to the families at their stops from 9 a.m. to noon.

Provision for the meals does not depend upon the student's in-school meal status or where - or if - they are enrolled. The routes and schedule are available online at beaufortschools.net.

With the recent announcement that state schools are closed until the end of April, many exams, programs and plans have been placed on hold or canceled. But creative work-arounds are starting to be implemented.

Red Cedar Elementary School hosts monthly Respect Assemblies and invites parents to attend as their student is honored for carrying out the school's character program of showing respect. The latest scheduled assemblies were held - with four people in attendance: Principal Kathleen Corley, Assistant Principal Cynthia Laizer, the school's Media Specialist Beth Simpson who video recorded the four assemblies for the various grades, and the district's Media Production Coordinator Ron Lopes, who was videoing Simpson for a district promo of how schools are adapting to the temporary norm.

Schooling continues with student learning packets on school web pages, links for students to access their normal school internet program resources, and such practical matters as getting a troublesome tablet repaired.

There might be no classrooms open, but there is classwork for everyone.

"I have eight classes, and every teacher gave us work to do - even the gym teacher," said Morgan Barron, a seventh grader at Hilton Head Island Middle School. "I start working at 9 a.m. and don't get finished until after 5 p.m."

And while safe outdoor recreation is encouraged, it doesn't count for school credit. Morgan's gym class still requires "a 30-minute workout for each day, like sit-ups and stuff."

The work load might depend on the grade level. A second-grade friend in Morgan's neighborhood said she had finished a week's worth of school work in her packet in three days.

The new home-schoolhouse has made life interesting for parents as well as kids.

"Overnight, I was suddenly homeschooling a second grader while caring for a 2- and 3-year-old and a four-month-old, all while keeping up with my full time job," said Holly Bounds-Jackson, a director of content with SCETV.

"Week one was tough, week two is better. Thankfully my daughter is good about keeping up with her assignments, so I don't have to stay on her about it," Bounds-Jackson said. "I realized early on I wasn't going to win 'teacher of the year' or 'teacher of quarantine,' but my goal was just to get through each day feeling somewhat good about it when my head hit the pillow."

Even though that goal was not always met, she added. New curriculum was added to the school-assigned work, including home economics, cooking and letter-writing.

With her oldest daughter, they cleaned the refrigerator, checking to see what items had expired; there was cooking involved with lessons in fractions, and a pen pal was created with the daughter of Bounds-Jackson's college friend in Bismarck, N.D.

There were also field trips and time to watch a turtle and a gator; family talent shows with a karaoke machine; more frequent-than-normal calls to the grandparents; and checking on neighbors "like we should have all along."

Still there is a plus side to this down time and challenging change in lifestyles.

"This is a scary, weird time - but so far it's brought out a side of my family I'd like to keep," said Bounds-Jackson. "But yes, I'll be thrilled when the school doors open back up again!"

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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