Schooled Reporting on education

School lunch at home

Education | Cafeteria programs continue serving meals to students despite glitches
by Laura Edghill
Posted 4/15/20, 05:41 pm

Even though schools are closed during the coronavirus pandemic, many of their cafeterias are still preparing lunches. Instead of a line of students with trays, workers serve meals drive-thru-style to a rolling line of vehicles.

At Austin High School in El Paso, Texas, cafeteria manager Reyna Trejo and her staff wear face masks, gloves, and long plastic aprons. They stand outside the school building under a radiant spring sky with rolling carts holding the day’s bagged meals. It’s difficult to communicate effectively with the masks on, so Trejo holds up a finger count to confirm how many meals each driver is requesting. She reminds people, “Roll your windows up!” as they drive off.

According to the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit group that works with school food providers, about 22 million children normally receive a free or reduced-price lunch every day in the nation’s public schools. In some high-need areas like New York City and Detroit, where the vast majority of students qualify for the federally subsidized meals, concerns about ongoing nutrition outweighed those over lost learning when COVID-19 forced schools to close.

As part of the closure plan, the federal government instructed schools to run their cafeteria programs under existing summer feeding guidelines. Those guidelines offer more flexibility than the school-year rules: Families do not need to disclose their incomes or prove school district residency to receive food.

Many school cafeterias transitioned seamlessly to the new model. But others ran into trouble within days of operation. Detroit Public Schools distributed more than 70,000 meals out of 58 locations the first week of its COVID-19 closure but was forced to change its game plan after an employee tested positive for the disease and others called in sick.

The district reduced the number of its distribution sites to 17 and limited service to just two days per week. Cafeteria workers now hand out several days’ worth of meals at a time, a compromise that keeps the food rolling and the workers safe.

Officials at Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools expanded their feeding program after experiencing higher-than-expected demand the first week. They added several dozen distribution sites, as well as bus delivery routes.

Other states also are using school buses to deliver food. North Carolina’s Kent Messick recently found himself trailing behind one such delivery bus in his Ford pickup truck about an hour north of Charlotte near his family farm. He wondered at first what it was doing out on the road: “The school bus stopped, the stop sign came out and the flashers were on and I said, ‘They’re here to deliver some food to this house.’”

He saw a woman walk down the small home’s rutted drive while a little girl waited on the front porch. Someone on the bus handed the mother a plastic bag filled with food.

“And it just really pierced my heart to see her on that front porch waiting for her mother to bring that food back,” Messick said, remembering his own experience at the local elementary school more than 50 years ago. “There’s always some kids that depended upon one good meal that they got at school each day.”

Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu (file) Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu (file) Gavels and law books in an office at the California Supreme Court

Skipping the bar exam

This year’s crop of law school graduates faces an uncertain future due to the coronavirus pandemic. Several states already postponed July testing dates for bar exams, and the organization that develops the exam announced it is considering a nationwide cancellation.

“It’s offered only twice a year, in a huge convention hall, so it creates a perfect storm for what the virus is able to do,” said Ohio State University law professor Deborah Jones Merritt. “We most certainly won’t be able to administer the exam in every state in July.”

Employment offers out of law school are often conditional on the graduates passing their state bar exam, which typically falls within months of graduation. Postponing the date leaves employers in a bind if their recruits don’t fare well. Students also are concerned about getting rusty on the material they’re studying right now.

Some states are considering a “diploma privilege” for this year, whereby law school graduates move directly into the profession without taking the test at all. Wisconsin already operates this way, and Utah has announced plans to adopt the model soon.

“People are very wedded to the idea of the bar exam,” Jones Merritt said. “Nationally, we have this fixation on multiple-choice tests. But we’ve seen no complaints that lawyers in Wisconsin are committing malpractice at rates higher than other states.”

The American Bar Association Board of Governors last week urged states to adopt a protocol like Wisconsin’s or one that allows supervised practice alongside a veteran attorney for this year’s graduates. —L.E.

Getty Images/Photo by Lisa Maree Williams Getty Images/Photo by Lisa Maree Williams Siblings in Tarpoly Creek, Australia, work on school lessons at home.

Virtual classroom invasions

“Zoombombing,” a term few people had heard of before last month, threatens to derail distance learning initiatives as schools scramble to guard against hacker invasions of video conferences.

Many schools quickly adopted the app Zoom as a teaching tool in the wake of sudden closures brought on by the spread of COVID-19. Teachers and administrators appreciated that even the free version offered a user-friendly interface and video. But the FBI issued a warning at the end of March after bad actors guessed or gained access to numerous meeting ID codes, joined in-progress calls, and contributed unwelcome audio or video material such as profanity, racist images, and pornography. Other platforms such as GoToMeeting and Skype have not reported similar problems.

The New York City Department of Education, the nation’s largest public school district, banned Zoom in response to the FBI warning, and numerous other districts are doing the same.

“We have been deeply upset by increasing reports of harassment on our platform and strongly condemn such behavior,” Zoom said in a statement released earlier this month. The company recommends users host their meetings privately and employ password protection, a solution that might work well enough for the corporate world but could prove tricky for a classroom of 7-year-olds. —L.E.

Associated Press/Photo by Jim Mone Associated Press/Photo by Jim Mone Lights shine on an empty high school stadium in Richfield, Minn., last week.

Bleachers and beacons

Don’t be shocked to see a high school football stadium near you light up soon. Schools are not defying your state’s shelter-in-place order, but they’re attempting to give the class of 2020 a little boost.

Principal Brett Beesley from Dumas High School, located in the Texas Panhandle, came up with the bright idea. Just a week into the COVID-19 school closure, he drove past his school’s darkened stadium one evening and decided he wanted to encourage his graduating seniors: “to let them know that we’re thinking about them and we miss them and we love them.”

Beesley pulled in to the parking lot, jumped out of his car, and flipped the light switch. He posted the challenge on Twitter under the hashtag #BeTheLight.

The trend caught on quickly and spread across the nation: Some schools added their own twists like playing the school fight song over the empty stadium’s loudspeakers or inviting firefighters and police to parade their vehicles around the track surrounding the field. —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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