City schools react to virus spreading

Thursday’s Fort Payne School Board meeting was the first since a state of emergency was declared on March 13 and Gov. Kay Ivey ordered closure of all public K-12 schools in Alabama until April 6 to contain the spread of COVID-19. It also may be the board’s last face-to-face meeting for a while. Ivey on March 18 gave public bodies the authority to meet electronically due to health and public safety concerns.

“The governor has put out the guideline for meetings in the sense that the school board, for as long as the crisis goes on, can meet by phone and empowers the superintendent to determine whether the board meets in person or by phone depending on the circumstances as they develop,” explained board attorney Rocky Watson.

With schools shuttered to help stop the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, Fort Payne is finding ways to feed students and families who may depend on meals and food pantries at their schools since 68 percent of the 3,387 students in the city schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to Child Nutrition Program director Laran Adkins.

“On Monday, we’ll send out five day’s worth of breakfasts and lunches for these students at one time. A lot of people are doing that, and we are capable of doing it because of the shelf-life of the type of foods we are sending home. As long as [families] can keep it refrigerated, we’re in good shape,” said Superintendent Jim Cunningham.

Since March 17, the city schools have daily deployed three buses to 12 breakfast/lunch pick-up locations, and handed out packaged lunches at Fort Payne Middle School, Williams Avenue Elementary School and Wills Valley Elementary School between 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Adkins said the system served 1,556 meals to 778 students on Friday.

The meal bags on Monday, March 23, will include enough breakfast and lunch items to feed each child daily through Friday, March 27 so school employees can spend the rest of Spring Break week focused on their own families. The food distributions will resume the following Monday, March 30, Cunningham said. Adkin said each child must be present to pick up their meal bags for the week.

School Board President Jimmy Durham asked Cunningham to express the board’s gratitude to all who are making the efforts possible during a tough time. Durham also thanked parents for their patience and understanding.

Cunningham said the system has a plan that includes parent pickup of iPads for instructional use by students in grades K-4 if schools remain closed beyond April 6. Older students can use Chromebooks. A survey found 87 percent of city students have WiFi internet connections at home.

Because Spring Break is next week, the system is losing nine instructional days rather than the 15 they otherwise would have with an April 6 re-opening still tentative. Cunningham said school facilities have been deep-sanitized and will be again before campuses re-open, whenever that ends up being.

To react quickly to the rapidly evolving situation, the school board on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution giving Superintendent Jim Cunningham board authority to take any action he deems appropriate and necessary to operate the system during the state of emergency. He must communicate such actions to the Board in writing as soon as practical and preferably in advance of such action when feasible.

Cunningham can now, without prior board approval, act to close any school facility, reassign employees, waive competitive bid procedures for purchases that may be necessary, waive instructional hours and school days, interpret graduation requirements, allocate resources for nutrition or transportation and direct how school grounds may be limited or repurposed to serve the community in consultation with appropriate heath and government authorities.

The board praised Cunningham for how he had thus far managed the situation. He, in turn, offered thanks to Adkins and the Child Nutrition Program staff, along with a very long list of volunteers (mostly school staff) who assisted in distributing the meals while schools are closed.

The meal plan includes ready-to-eat foods, along with three or four other meals that will need to be heated before eating. Instructions will be included in each bag.

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