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Schools work to keep students fed

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As the sun rose high in a clear sky Monday, Nina Pepin packed up her five children into a Mercedes Sprinter van and headed to Central Point Elementary School.

“I knew that it was coming,” she said of the circumstances that resulted in her children in all grade levels being home on a Monday morning.

The normally bustling 552-student elementary campus was decidedly quiet — the result of a statewide school closure that has canceled classes until at least April 1. But Pepin parked her vehicle along South Second Street, not far from a small group of people with a cart and a sign reading, “Breakfast and Lunch Service.”

The cart holding sandwiches, juice boxes and milk cartons, and the short assembly line of volunteers armed with hand sanitizer, were the proof-in-pudding answer to the question at the forefront of local educators’ minds when Gov. Kate Brown announced the K-12 school closure late Thursday night: How were kids going to still be able to eat?

In Jackson County, where seven of the nine school districts have more than 60% of their student populations qualifying for free and reduced price lunch, food was the first priority, officials said.

“We’ve got to (prioritize) those basic needs before we look at those other things that we’d like to accomplish, like education and socialization,” said Walt Davenport, principal of Central Point Elementary. “If we don’t have those basic needs met, it makes it that much tougher.”

It’s not yet clear how long it will be until Oregon schools can resume their normal schedules, as officials from the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority look to national guidance to slow the spread of COVID-19.

On Monday, the Oregon Health Authority announced eight new confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 47.

School districts are still formulating plans to provide instruction and assessment online or through other remote methods.

Brown said in a Monday press conference that she didn’t yet know whether a new four-week moratorium on gatherings of 25 or more people and restaurants serving food on-site would extend the school hiatus. For now, that’s scheduled to lift after March 31.

“We are reevaluating our school policy,” Brown said. “We will be announcing further decisions in the next couple of days.”

But for Monday, the first official day of Oregon’s closure, the greater focus was on feeding students — safely. Among the priorities: sanitizing heavily, minimizing close contact and continuing to get the word out about the program.

In Medford School District, an estimated 400 meals were handed out the first day; most school officials said they expected their numbers to increase day by day as more parents find out about the continued meal service and how it works.

Most districts have opted into a “grab and go” method, in which families or students can pick up lunches on-site and then take them elsewhere to eat.

In Medford, breakfast and lunch can be picked up in the cafeteria, entering and leaving through designated doors. Gathering inside the school is discouraged. Custodians are cleaning between every meal.

Families can also pick up breakfast for the following day when they pick up lunch — another method to minimize contact, said Jeff Ashmun, area general manager of Sodexo, which provides food for Medford and Phoenix-Talent schools.

“It gets more nutrition out into the community, and it also has the benefit of reducing potential contact tomorrow,” Ashmun said. “And it makes it more convenient for families.”

At Central Point Elementary, a few tables set up far apart from each other in the cafeteria offered another option for people to sit down and eat without risking cross-contamination.

Both licensed and classified staff are volunteering to serve breakfast and lunch to families. One employee squirted hand sanitizer into each approaching diner’s hands, while others took orders for peanut butter versus sun butter sandwiches, chocolate versus regular milk.

Parents accompanying their children may also be able to purchase meals: Davenport said breakfast costs $1 and lunch $2.

Ashland, which had a scheduled teacher in-service day Monday, will begin meal service at several sites Tuesday. It’s also offering the option for meal delivery via buses, though it’s not immediately clear how many families might need that option.

Central Point School District has also requested permission from ODE to offer meals at other sites along bus routes.

Pepin said she was glad that people were opting to protect people more vulnerable to the infectious disease through closures, and expressed her gratitude to staff for working to keep the continuity of food service for families.

“I so appreciate the availability of lunches for so many people in our community,” she said. “I’m just really excited that, even if just for this short amount of time, that it’s going to be available for everybody. And I hope that as many people in this district and neighborhood can find out about it and utilize it ... if it’s a need for them.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Central Point Elementary School serves breakfast and lunch{ } Monday in spite of school closures. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune