djr-2020-03-12-news-coronavirus-twp1

ServePro employee Joseph Felks cleans chairs and other items at Joyner Elementary School Wednesday afternoon as the Tupelo Public School District conducts a cleaning of all its campuses while students are on spring break.

As school districts across Northeast Mississippi close their doors for days and weeks, there are a number of unintended consequences, like parents struggling to find childcare and challenges with online instruction. But the most immediate concern seems to be feeding students who rely on free and reduced lunch for daily meals.

After Tupelo Public School District announced they would extend spring break through March 20, superintendent Dr. Rob Picou remarked, “I don’t think anybody’s seen anything like the coronavirus.”

When it comes to closing schools, Picou said the bottom line question is ‘Are we going to listen to medical experts?’ The district consulted with North Mississippi Health Services infectious disease specialist Dr. Malinda Prewitt while discussing school closures.

Prewitt told the Daily Journal that closing schools is necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. The difference between proceeding normally versus closing schools is “life and death for people that would be potentially exposed and infected,” she said.

”The goal here is to not overwhelm the healthcare system so we can provide care, and the ways to do that are through social distancing that is strict – not convenient, but strict,” Prewitt said.

She borrowed an analogy from a friend to describe the situation: “You won’t get in trouble for giving a snow day if it turns out pretty, but you will get in trouble if it’s a stormy day, you don’t let out and someone gets hurt.”

“The district makes this decision with extreme reluctance because we are aware of the many difficult unintended consequences that result from closing school,” Picou said on Friday, acknowledging that while school closures are essential, there are important consequences to address.

TPSD communications director Gregg Ellis said on Sunday morning that the district's cafeteria workers will be making grab-and-go lunches for students this week. More information will be available soon.

Outside entities, like local churches and organizations, are also stepping up to help keep children fed.

Jason Martin, executive director of the Tupelo/Lee County Hunger Coalition, said there was a conference call on Saturday with representatives from Tupelo and Lee County schools and partner agencies.

“One of the things we’re waiting on is for the Mississippi Department of Education to release or approve a waiver that will allow the schools to do grab-and-go meals and allow (students) to take the meals away from the school without them having to be sitting in a congregant setting,” Martin said. “Until that happens, the schools are not allowed to distribute food.”

In the meantime, the coalition has asked some of its partners to provide lunches to some densely populated, low income housing areas across the county, and more information will be available on Tupelo/Lee County Hunger Coalition’s social media.

Oxford School District (OSD) announced on Saturday that it will provide grab-and-go meals in various locations across the district starting Tuesday, March 17, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. each day. Meals will be available for all children, not just OSD students.

“Knowing that we will have students who count on breakfast and lunch at school to sustain themselves, we just thought that would be a good extension of our summer meals program,” OSD superintendent Brian Harvey said.

When asked about the need for an MDE waiver, Harvey said a request has been submitted, but the district will not wait for approval before serving students.

“We’ve got food and we’re fixing to give it out,” Harvey said.

OSD will work on a plan next week to transition priority standards. Harvey said questions about student testing, which was supposed to start next week, will not play into any decisions the district makes to close schools.

“Students and families, employees and the community are our top three priorities,” Harvey said.

With nearly 3 million residents in the state of Mississippi and only 90 tested for COVID-19 as of Friday, OSD made the decision to cancel school through March 27 and reopen on March 30.

“The Department of Health has not recommended any school closures at this time, but quite frankly I don’t know if they’re in a position to do that,” Harvey said. “We just felt it was the best for us and we also feel that in doing this, it is also allowing us to prepare for the situation if there’s an extended amount of time that schools are out.”

Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency on Saturday afternoon and asked all of Mississippi’s public schools to extend spring break by at least one week, which most had already done.

“We know that can be a burden on working families and we are working hard to minimize that struggle,” Reeves said. “Mississippians look after one another and we will work hard to take care of you throughout this time.”

Lee County School District announced on Saturday morning, prior to Reeves’ statement, that it would extend spring break through March 20.

LCSD superintendent Coke Magee said dealing with school closures related to COVID-19 is “uncharted territory.”

“I don’t know at this point that anybody can say what’s going to happen for sure,” Magee said. “All we can do is continue to monitor the situation day-to-day.”

Magee said he’s working with LCSD child nutrition director Valerie Weivoda to “figure out a scenario that would provide some type of meal plan in the future” if school ends up being closed for longer than the extended break.

However, the Guntown Middle School food pantry will be open on Wednesday, March 18, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. to assist GMS students, families and anyone in the community who is in need of food or supplies. Contact Vanessa Washington at vanessa.washington@leecountyschools.us for more information about receiving or donating resources.

“We have several students that benefit weekly from our food pantry, and due to the school being closed for a week, many of our students are not going to have access to our resources like they normally do,” Washington said.

Other organizations and churches throughout Northeast Mississippi helping to ensure students are fed include:

• First Baptist Church in Ripley will prepare 625 sack lunches on March 16 and 17 for pickup at the Family Life Center between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Families who need lunches for the entire week can pick them up from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on those days.

• First Baptist Church in New Albany will prepare 500 sack lunches Monday through Friday and distribute from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to any child in the elementary, middle or high school in New Albany. The lunches will be free and can be picked up at the Family Life Center, located behind First Baptist Church and the Union County Courthouse on Main Street.

blake.alsup@journalinc.com

Twitter: @AlsupTheWriter

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