New Madrid County R-1 School District in southeast Missouri has a small village of about 35 workers helping to get 2,400 meals a day to students out of school during the COVID-19 outbreak. Administrators, teachers, school bus drivers, resource officers, cooks, maintenance workers, school board members, you name it, are making the entire operation happen. Their goal is in this order – feed the kids and then their minds.

Missouri school district feeds kids, then their minds

New Madrid County is one of the poorest counties in Missouri. The district is delivering meals five days a week with the hopes there will be leftovers to get kids through six out of the seven days.

Superintendent Sam Duncan tells Missourinet twenty bus drivers deliver meals over a roughly three-hour period. They cover the entire district of about 470 square miles to reach 1,400 preschool through 12th graders who have requested breakfast and lunch.

Staff came in during their spring break last week to get this operation in place. The task has been a labor of love for those involved.

“This team – it’s almost as if they’re about to starve if we don’t deliver them. That’s the sense of urgency,” says Duncan. “It’s remarkable when people put their heads together and they care this much. It really almost brings you to tears to see because they just want those kids to have a meal. If we really have a true dire emergency – I’m talking about one where people are really just completely panic-stricken or if this does get worse – what a testimony to the district and the people. This is not a drill, don’t get me wrong. But if it were, I can’t imagine a better drill.”

Workers have their temperature checked during their shift. Duncan says the district is rationing protective masks because they don’t have enough. Each person reuses the same mask to last them a week. He says rubber gloves are at a premium.

“We’re seeing that the nature of this emergency is not like a tornado or an earthquake. This is something where there are germs being spread,” he says. “So, our number one objective – and it sounds corny – was first to do no harm. The first objective is to make sure that we have only those people that we need to make it happen.”

He hopes the state will supply schools with the gear needed to protect workers and those they’re serving.

“What’s at stake if one of our people sneezes,” he asks. “What’s at stake if we don’t have masks and they happen to have been to Chicago or their daughter went to St. Louis and came back and they’re infected and walk in here tomorrow? What’s at stake? Think about how that could take off exponentially. But if this stuff is going out to our homes and our kids and our families that our grandmothers are taking care of these boys and girls during the day, and if somebody sneezes on a packet or sneezes on a lunch and they happen to be infected, this is something you can’t afford to happen.”

The district is still figuring out what its next step will be. It is closed until at least April 6.

“It is literally day by day. And yes, we will be teaching online if we don’t come back. I think for us, again, it’s figuring out how to feed them first and learn what we need to learn,” he says.

When meals are dropped off, the district could deliver Chromebooks and educational material to students if necessary.

“Our buses go to every kid’s door. They already do. That’s the way we deliver kids every day. Our buses run 2,000 to 3,000 miles every day. Eighty-percent of our kids ride a bus,” says Duncan.

Like many Missouri school districts, New Madrid County has a large rural population with broadband internet access problems. Trying to teach kids at home would be a challenge.

“If we’re delayed, we know that we have a team of teachers and our elementary principals are continuing behind the scenes to work together on how to deliver the educational piece. Part of it will though for us be we know that we have people who do not have devices,” he says. We know that we have people who do not have internet. We know that we have an equity issue. This brings up a big issue of access in rural areas and it is a problem.”

Then you have to think about mobile minutes and data packages.

“So what if you have a true dire emergency in your household and your data package has been completely eaten up for the month,” he asks. “We know this is an emergency, but it really is also somewhat of a drill.”

Duncan explains the closing came at a time when most school districts are focused on doing their state tests over the next couple of weeks. Then there are end of year field trips, graduation and prom.

“It is a bad situation but it’s probably the ideal time – if there is a silver lining – for districts to really go through their processes,” he says.

Listen to the full interview below.

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