By Melba Newsome

As of March 20, 45 states and the District of Columbia ordered schools closed in an effort to maintain social distancing to stave off COVID-19 transmission, impacting some 52.6 million students across the U.S. North Carolina was in the first wave of states to mandate schools close statewide.

There were no documented cases of school-based COVID-19 when North Carolina districts began implementing policies designed to mitigate the spread of the virus, including canceling interscholastic athletics and school-based activities and moving up spring break. Then on March 14, Wake County Schools announced that a teacher at Fuquay-Varina Elementary School tested positive for COVID-19 and joined other districts in the Triangle in closing its schools.

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There were just 24 cases of COVID-19 in the state when Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order directing K-12 public schools across the state to close for two weeks, starting Monday, March 16. However, the 10-fold increase in COVID-19 cases since and widespread closure of non-essential businesses make the prospect that schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year increasingly likely.

On Friday, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) board member Elyse Dashew and superintendent Earnest Winston asked state officials for specific allowances during this crisis including a waiver of year-end testing and minimum class time for the current school year. They also requested authority to award emergency leave pay to employees who get COVID-19 or can’t do their jobs because of school closings.

But, in the meantime, what happens to those students now that their schools are shut down, especially the many for whom schools are both a vital source of shelter and food?

Feeding the children

Hidden Valley Elementary is a Title I school on Charlotte’s north side. The school’s zone includes a cluster of hotels where families often stay when they’ve been evicted or can no longer stay with relatives or friends. Almost one-tenth of the 900 students qualify for McKinney-Vento aid, a federal program that requires public schools to provide services such as free meals, tutoring and transportation to ensure students aren’t forced to leave their schools due to homelessness.

Although CMS is the second-largest district in the state, it has the largest population of homeless students — more than 4,700 last year. For these children and many others across the state, food insecurity is a real challenge even without an emergency. USDA guidelines allow free or reduced lunches for children in households with incomes at or below 185 percent of poverty. In 2018-19, 59.4 percent of North Carolina’s public school students fall within these guidelines, according to data compiled by the Annie E Casey Foundation.

Board of Education chair Eric Davis promised that the board will work with federal and state authorities to find options to continue meal service. That resulted in food being distributed at school locations and directly into the community.

On March 16, CMS opened about 70 sites for grab-and-go meals while schools are closed, serving lunch and breakfast for the next day in the parking lot of participating schools. The district served 19,000 meals the first day that service was available.

Davis noted that public schools across the state are now serving 375,000 meals a day to children who might otherwise go hungry. On Monday Gov. Cooper stated that over 1.2 million meals have been served to students to date.

In a March 20 Facebook video update, Dashew reminded viewers that this assistance is not limited to students enrolled in CMS. “You do not have to be a CMS student, you don’t have to bring CMS ID. Any child 18 and under can pick up lunch and breakfast, no questions asked,” she said.

Dashew added that the district will start using school buses to deliver free meals for children into communities this week.

Continuous learning

Davis assured North Carolinians that the board will seek flexibilities from federal and state law to make sure instruction and learning will continue. CMS approved a plan for students to do online or paper-packet lessons that will be voluntary, the exercises won’t be graded and children will not receive credit for them.

North Carolina Broadband Map

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Deemed supplemental, the lessons won’t move students through the curriculum or closer to graduation. Graham Wilson, director of communication and information services of the Department of Public Instruction, says a webinar that provides information on resources for remote learning is available online.

The law requires that all children have access to the same instruction but online or home-based learning creates challenges for students on the wrong side of the digital divide. Many families don’t have a computer at home and 25 percent of households across North Carolina do not have access to high-speed internet, according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

The closure of public libraries cuts off another avenue for students to engage in online learning.

Child care

Burke County Public Schools is taking measures to address childcare needs. On March 19, the district opened five sites for temporary, emergency, out-of-school child care to meet the day care needs of families with parents who must continue to work through the coronavirus crisis while schools are closed. Child care services are provided between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays for children ages 5 to 12 for $15 a day.

Other districts around the state are providing similar services for parents who are considered essential workers.

While closing schools has been shown to slow the spread of disease, school closures are only effective in slowing the virus if students stay home and limit other contacts. If children are crowded into day care programs, if parents “regroup” children to meet child care needs or if teens congregate freely outside school, the statewide school closure won’t be as effective.

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Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer with more than 20 years' experience reporting on news and features. Her feature credits in many prominent publications including the New York Times, Bloomberg...