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Schools, food banks prepare to feed children during coronavirus-forced closure

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama State Department of Education as well as area food banks throughout the state are working to feed children when schools close next week in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Gov. Kay Ivey announced on Friday that all public K-12 schools will be closed after Wednesday, March 18 with the goal of reopening on Monday, April 6. Ivey also announced a state of emergency Friday.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey said students on free and reduced lunch will still be given meals during closures and food banks around the state said they are prepared to help with the need.

As of Friday, State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said there are confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state. According to the Department of Public Health website, there have been 12 presumptive positive cases, one each in Elmore, Limestone, and Montgomery counties and five in Jefferson and two in Tuscaloosa. One is listed as “out of state.”

Mackey said that closing schools down was the best way to help limit the spread of the virus that has swept the globe in less than four months, particularly affecting the elderly and those with chronic health conditions.

“Closing schools is a great way to limit transmissions. We don’t have cases in schools yet but it’s a great proactive step,” Mackey said.

He said during the last week of March, the Alabama State Department of Education will reassess if a continued closure is needed. He said they will be looking at the rate of infection in the state, where the outbreaks are occurring and if they are clustered or widespread across the state as measurements if schools should remain closed.

Due to the state of emergency, schools will not have to make up the missed days. Mackey said the action doesn’t apply to private schools, but he expects them to close as well.

Schools will not be required to do online classes or e-learning and Mackey cautioned students from congregating in large groups.

“The purpose of this (closure) is to give the virus more time and to mitigate the spread of this disease,” Mackey said.

Mackey also said the state will still provide free and reduced lunches to those students who are eligible during the closure. He said he wasn’t sure when those services would begin.

According to the Governor’s office, the state has received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue serving lunches to students in schools where more than 50% of students were deemed economically disadvantaged.

Mackey said he wasn’t sure on the logistics yet of how students would get meals but delivery services or drive-by pick up points could be a possibility.

According to the State Department of Education, 364,216 students in Alabama receive free or reduced meals. About 26% of Alabama children live in poverty, which raises concerns about coronavirus-related closures and work stoppages on the low income.

The Food Bank of North Alabama assists 11 counties’ supply food for underserved communities and also helps with serving students meals in the summer

Shirley Schofield, the executive director, on Friday said they have been taking proactive measures in light of the virus and do have a plan in place to help students in case of closures.

“In times like this we will go ahead and buy some stuff in advance knowing that we’ll probably have to have extra food on hand and available,” Schofield said. “We’ve made purchases and we’re supposed to be getting that in early next week.”

Schofield said the food bank’s supply usually comes from donations from grocery stores like Walmart, Publix, Kroger, Aldi and Whole Foods. But to prepare for an outbreak, it started purchasing food to ensure they are fully stocked.

She said special procedures like a drive by pantry may be implemented where families can pick up groceries at designated pick up points without leaving their cars so as to limit large congregating crowds.

Elizabeth Wix is the director of partnership at Community Food Bank of Central Alabama and said it plans on continuing services to help their communities and students in need.

“We are currently working with our administrators at our schools as to what they want to do and how to best meet the needs for their families,” Wix said. “But yes, we plan to help them out as much as we can.”

The Central Alabama Foodbank serves Blount, Calhoun, Cherokee, Clay, Cleburne, Etowah, Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, Talladega, Walker and Winston Counties. It helps more than 230 food pantries and shelters across those counties by supplying food and resources when needed.

Wix said there food bank has maintained its usual food safety standards and plans to abide by recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alabama Department of Health on containing the spread of the virus.

Schofield said she was confident in the ability to address the state’s needs, but depending on how long these containment measures last, some additional help may be needed.

“Depending on how long this will go on, additional resources will certainly be helpful but we will do our best to prioritize where the help is needed and get it there as quickly as we can,” Schofield said.

Dr. Harris said during Friday’s press conference that people need to be aware and practice basic normal hygiene but not to panic about the spread of the virus.

“I don’t think people need to be frightened at all,” Harris said. “Together we will be able to get through this.”

If you would like to donate to the Northern Alabama Food Bank in Huntsville you can find more information HERE on how to donate food or volunteer.

You can learn more about how to donate to the Central Alabama Food Bank HERE.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath and can appear two to 14 days after exposure. The ADPH has said that people who believe they have the virus should first call their primary care physicians. The state is working to set up screening centers where more people can be tested. If you do not have a primary care physician but are concerned that you have symptoms of COVID-19 you can call the ADPH hotline at 1-888-264-2256 with your questions.

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