PINETOP-LAKESIDE — Ensuring social distancing at the same time that you try to ensure that children have access to food has been an evolving process for area school districts.
Early this week Blue Ridge Unified School District posted a notice on their website that they planned to suspend student meal distribution in order to keep students and staff safe from the coronavirus.
“Due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus in our town and the surrounding communities, and with anticipation of the problem only becoming worse in the coming weeks, we will suspend the distribution of our meals program beginning Monday, April 13, 2020. Therefore, until further notice, this week will be the last in which we provide free meals,” stated a notice posted on the district’s website.
Dr. Michael Wright, superintendent at Blue Ridge, said he just needed a bit of time to try to figure out how to solve this sticky problem.
Meals had been distributed to students during weekdays at pick-up locations where staff would hand bags of food to students or parents who were waiting in cars. The food in the bag would be equivalent to one lunch and one breakfast. Each eligible student would get a bag. Some meals were delivered by bus as well.
Blue Ridge has been providing 1,600 meals a day during weekdays to area students while schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While the system was working to keep children who rely on school meals fed, Dr. Wright said he was concerned about how it was difficult to ensure social distancing during these transactions.
Wright said he anticipated it could take a couple of days to work out a new system, during which time the student meal program would be suspended.
A problem solved
A solution to the problem was, however, promptly found. After the special meeting of the school board Tuesday night, Wright announced on the Blue Ridge Facebook page that school meals would only be suspended on Monday, April 13.
Starting Tuesday, April 14, meals will only be distributed just twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday.
“… (T)hree days worth of meals will be provided at once inside a single package, with food being distributed only on Tuesday and Friday of each week from 10 am-12 pm. This adjustment reduces potential exposure to employees, volunteers, and food recipients, while yet providing a stable food source for many,” Wright announced in the post.
Food will also be distributed by volunteers from TheCHURCH at their Re-Center, located at 814 White Mountain Boulevard in Pinetop. Families who had been getting their meals at the elementary school can now get them at the Re-Center.
Wright said that Pastor Ron Everingham and volunteers have an established relationship with Blue Ridge.
“We’ve had a great partnership,” he added, noting that their facility has the refrigeration and the space as well as the volunteers to facilitate the distribution.
In addition, “Meal packages will also be delivered at the current locations established to support both McNary and Whiteriver communities, as described above on Tuesdays and Fridays … from 10 a.m.-12 p.m.” he stated.
Wright said the changes are an attempt to stay ahead of the curve.
“We’re trying to be proactive, anticipating it’s going to get worse. We’re trying to stay ahead of it,” he said in a telephone conversation.
Meals delivered by bus will now be handed out from the back of the bus in order to improve safety.
“We just need to create that enhanced distance,” Wright said.
Show Low Unified School District continues its meal program as well, but has also taken additional steps to improve safety and to reduce contact between individuals.
“We … are now able to provide meals to families without needing to load all the kids in the car each time they come to get food … we provide a verification card for families that have a hardship bringing their children in. Once verified the parent receives a card and will only need to present the card upon pick up,” said Supt. Shad Housley in an email Wednesday.
Like Blue Ridge, Show Low is “… currently exploring multi-day meals. For instance, meals being picked up on Thursday of this week will include enough meals for Thursday, Friday and Monday due to the Easter Holiday,” he wrote.
Handling the meal distribution programs has been an evolving situation, Housely said.
“Many of these options were not available at the start of the program. Because this is a Federal Program we have to seek waivers from the State. We are grateful that we have been able to work closely with State Supt. Hoffman to ensure we can gain the flexibility needed to meet the needs of our students and community, he wrote.
“It is the intent of the Show Low School District to maintain services to our families and children so long as circumstances allow, Housely said.