Public schools across North Carolina have given meals to thousands of students since in-person classes ended for many three weeks ago, but this week's school meals will be the last in Durham.
Cars formed a steady line in the circle drive at Lakewood Montessori Middle School Monday. Through car windows, school staff passed plastic bags filled with a week's worth of lunches for each child.
Cafeteria worker Claire Nicholson greeted families.
“How y'all been?” Nicholson asked as a driver pulled up.
“Pretty good,” answered Shirley Thoms from behind a checkered scarf.
Thoms wore the scarf around her mouth to protect from the coronavirus and dark sunglasses to ward off the glaring sun on this warm afternoon. She knows Nicholson from the school cafeteria, but Nicholson could hardly recognize her behind the protective gear.
Nicholson nods with recognition when Thoms describes her kids who once attended the school, as Nicholson takes a head count of the number of children needing meals.
Emergency Leave Ensures Pay For School Support Staff
This will be the final free meal distribution led by Durham Public Schools, after a school employee who helped deliver meals from Bethesda Elementary was diagnosed with COVID-19. Last week, the school district was delivering about 5,000 meals a day to local children.
“I think the fact that they're doing this, is a great thing for the families who need it, every little bit helps,” Thoms said. “The fact that it's the last time, you know, I think there's no playbook for how this thing is going to play out, so DPS is making the decision that works for them.”
Durham Public School administrators say the main reason they are ending the meal service is that cafeteria workers were calling for it.
“They have kids, you know, and some of them are in that high risk group, so some of them had things to think about,” said Becky Pope, the school district’s dietition.
Pope said many of the staff she works with will now be taking emergency leave.
The State Board of Education approved emergency leave through the end of April for a variety of school employees statewide. Anyone who has underlying health conditions, or is a caregiver for children or elders -- or who can't perform their job remotely -- is eligible.
Durham Public Schools spokesman Chip Sudderth said, initially, the meal service was a win-win for families and school employees. Cafeteria workers and bus drivers continued working, and continued getting paid, by providing the service for hungry kids. Now the availability of emergency leave ensures employees can remain on state payrolls while staying home to prevent spread of the virus.
“We reached a point where enough of our employees were taking the leave that we could not sustain the program indefinitely,” Sudderth said.
Durham Public Schools is not alone in this decision; officials at Dare County Schools have also announced reduced meal services this month. And it’s not the only district to report that a school employee was diagnosed with the coronavirus. Davidson County has seen two cases among school staff who were helping with meal services at the county public school system and Lexington City Schools.
Denille Amendola works at the Lakewood Montessori Middle School cafeteria. She says she has mixed feelings about this being the last day of meal distribution.
“I am concerned for the kids who don't have anything for food for the next few weeks,” Amendola said. “There is an upside, because I have four kids at home, so it gives me the opportunity to spend time with my children.”
Amendola will be receiving pay on leave until May, then she hopes to be back to work as soon as possible.
“I try not to worry,” Amendola said. “I think worry brings things to you, so, I’m just taking it day by day.”
The Durham Public Schools Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the public school system, plans to ramp up meal services provided by local restaurants to fill the growing need to feed children who would typically receive low cost meals at school.