Education and municipal officials across the state are scrambling to provide food to children who typically get one or more meals in school.
The Connecticut Mirror calculated that, on Friday, schools had been closed for about 295,000 Connecticut students, including some of the state’s largest, urban districts.
On Thursday, Bridgeport Public Schools district was able to put into place emergency meal service for Friday and beyond at 20 locations, with breakfast being served from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and lunch being served Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Interim Superintendent of Schools Testani said there will be emergency food service sites available during school closings through March 20. Sites can be seen here: https://www.bridgeportedu.net/
Coronavirus became a threat so quickly and so suddenly that when New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker woke up on a recent day, he said he hadn’t imagined closing down the city’s schools that day.
But by shortly after noon that day, Elicker was standing with interim Superintendent of Schools Iline Tracey and City Health Director Maritza Bond to announce the schools were closing indefinitely. The city’s schools had been planning for a potential shut down scenario for weeks, but the suddenness meant that not all those plans were ready to be implemented.
New Haven’s schools already offer free breakfast and lunch to students each weekday. Although its enrollment shrank slightly this year, its number of students who are federally eligible for free lunch grew by more than 1,000 this year. About two-thirds of students in the system are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
Two sources familiar with discussions said New Haven was initially denied a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prepare meals in a “grab and go” fashion. However, partnerships with other urban school districts and assistance from U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, helped to overturn the decision so that the district could begin offering meals from an estimated 39 pick-up sites starting Monday.
In a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, DeLauro and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia urged expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program as a “vital anti-recession tool.”
By Saturday, the district announced families of students will be able to go to the site nearest to their residence. Food distribution sites will be open for breakfast and lunch pick up Monday through Friday from 9 a.m to noon. School officials “will work to maintain appropriate social distancing per Center for Disease Control” guidelines in an effort to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19, the city said in an email.
The district reverting to a “neighborhood school” type of model for the disbursement of meals allows young residents to go to the nearest food site instead of the school they attend, district COO Michael Pinto said. City schools are designed to be no more than a quarter-mile from most New Haven residences, he said, and the same should apply to food sites.
As of Friday afternoon, parents in New Haven were told they must pick up meals from schools where at least one child attends.
The most difficult USDA rule to circumvent was the one about congregate eating. Billy Bromage, a member of the New Haven Food Policy Council, said the rule is in place to ensure that federal meals are being consumed by students.
“It’s a quality control sort of thing,” he said.
Under the summer meals program, the school district can be reimbursed for all meals delivered to city youth at a number of community feeding sites, but the meals must be eaten on site. Similarly, during the school year New Haven must provide meals during designated meal times with students remaining in place in a school cafeteria.
“With coronavirus, we don’t want them congregating,” Bromage said.
Perdue announced Tuesday that there would be “flexibilities” on the congregant rule, but school officials said that wouldn’t matter without official recognition through a waiver.
Gail Cairns-Sharry, executive food director for New Haven Public Schools, said the USDA was telling states throughout the week there was a backlog.
City spokesman Gage Frank confirmed Sunday that New Haven received the USDA waiver.
Cairns-Sharry said: “We already have 6,000 shelf-stable meals in house.”
“I think that’s a huge concern,” Bromage said. “All the schools close and it seems one of the first things I hear, maybe because I’m already in that world, but people want to know what we’re going to do for food.”
Nijija-Ife Waters, president of New Haven’s Citywide Parent Team, said the district did not give parents enough time.
“Parents did not have enough time to prepare for their kids to stay home, especially the younger ones,” she said. “Even though there was quite a few Parentlinks, they weren’t descriptive.”
Waters said she wanted the district to hold an instructional meeting for parents on the district’s response to Covid-19.
Latha Swamy, New Haven’s director of food policy, said the city also is having discussions with “large footprint community providers” to develop a community-wide response to school meals in the absence of school.
Mark Allegrini, a spokesman for the United Way of Greater New Haven, said the organization is consulting with both New Haven and Hamden.
“We’re in the beginning stages of figuring out how we can support that effort,” he said Wednesday. “We should know more by Monday, but we’ve had initial conversations about what that coordination could look like and how we might be best able to help.”
As districts across the state were making preparations, Waterbury Public Schools was planning daily with its city departments.
“We’ve opened up the (Emergency Operations Center) here as a place for people to call with questions and concerns,” said Will Clark, the Waterbury school district’s COO and former longtime COO for New Haven’s schools. “We’re having weekly meetings that have turned into, frankly, daily meetings with hospitals, emergency response, et cetera.”
Similar to New Haven, Clark said his district’s initial response was to call for an extension of the summer meals program, so the district could operate under those rules.
In Norwalk, parent Jodi Przybisiki launched into action when she began to worry that meals wouldn’t be available in the district. She said she reached out to district staff about what would happen, but did not get a response.
“They were so focused on figuring out if they were even closing the schools or not, which I understand had to be their first priority, that I didn’t hear back,” she said.
Przybisiki said she decided to launch a food collection drive, which she organized over Facebook throughout the week. On Friday, during drop off and also pick up, she asked parents to donate food for nearby food pantries.
In total, she estimated 15 carloads of food was donated Friday.
“There’s people that may not necessarily need help every day or be needy, but if they can’t go to work for two weeks because they have to stay with their kids, it can be a hardship where they can’t put food on the table,” Przybisiki said.
Neil Cavallaro, superintendent of the West Haven schools, said the district ordinarily serves 4,500 lunches per day during regular school days. The plan West Haven devised is similar to New Haven’s grab-and-go decision.
“Our plan is to use our schools as drop off sites and deliver meals each day we’re not in session. We have a similar operation we use to disperse meals during the summer months,” Cavallaro said.
The day before it made the call to close schools, Stamford’s school district was still finalizing its response as well.
“We are working closely with the USDA, CDC and CSDE, as well as with our food service provider and local community agencies to develop contingency plans in the event of a school closure,” said district spokeswoman Sharon Beadle on Wednesday.
Bridgeport’s plan operates similarly to how Cairns-Sharry said it is being done in Washington state, with schools opening for meal service only, an option New Haven initially considered.
Torrington and Winchester schools are partnering to offer a “drive through” breakfast and lunch meal services at one location in each municipality for all students during the school shutdown.
“Any child 18 or under will be provided a Grab and Go bag lunch for that day and a breakfast for the next morning,” the school districts reported.
When schools are closed, some officials say it can destabilize lives of students and families in ways they hadn’t expected.
“When people say we should close school, my mind goes to: what about the medically fragile, learning for kids, food and other social services,” said Waterbury Public Schools COO Clark.