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By Dave Taylor
Hancock County Schools are closed until at least April 6, but superintendent Kyle Estes says the district is keeping its focus on educating while adding a strong emphasis on protecting the well being of the student population through increased meal and health services.
“I’ve had multiple meetings with our support staff and I’ve shared with them that our new goal in the short term is preserving the health of our students, the employees and our community,” Estes said.
On Monday and Tuesday, six buses ran throughout the county, delivering breakfast and lunch to students stuck at home with the closure of the schools.
Monday the buses delivered a total of 705 meals, and on Tuesday that number jumped to 841 meals.
Comparing that to the district average of 820 breakfasts and 1,095 lunches served to students in a normal school day, and it’s clear that the meals are reaching a large portion of the students and increasing daily.
“So far we’ve seen an increase of about 20 meals a day and I expect that to continue,” said Pam Ramsey, the county’s food service director.
Any child age 1 to 18 can get a meal under the Summer Feeding Program, which is being used to fund the meals, but they should sign up for the service in order to ensure that everyone has a meal.
“If they’re standing out there and they’ve not ordered a meal we will give them a meal,” she said. “But for preparation reasons we really need to know ahead of time so that we can make sure that we have a meal for everybody that’s standing out there.”
In a normal school year the district provides take home goods and other services to qualifying families, and those services will continue through the closure.
“We’re also creating some mechanism s to where our families that need additional support through our FRYSCs, our family youth service centers, they can communicate that,” Estes said. “And we’re working on plans to where those necessities could even be delivered through the transportation of our meals.”
“I’ve had conversations with judge-executive (Chic) Roberts about if there’s county needs, we want to be able to work together with our county and use all the resources that we can to best meet the needs of this community,” he said.
The days students are missing are being made up using NTI, or non-traditional instruction, where teachers send home lessons for the duration of the closure. In this instance, each student got 10 days of classwork for each period, to be completed before school returns to normal session.
That classwork can be done on a school provided iPad or on printed paper, and can be turned in as they complete it or held to be turned in at once at the April 6 return date.
Sending students home with work, some who will be home alone or with parents who can’t or won’t help, or even some who’ll be at a babysitter isn’t ideal, but it’s a way to continue the education and not add days to the school year.
“There’s nothing that can take the place of being in front of a teacher in the classroom,” Estes said. “You do the very best with what you have in front of you and make it as productive as possible from the teachers’ seat to the students’ seat being at home in a distance-learning scenario.”
Teachers are instructed to be reachable during normal school hours in case students need help.
While students and staff are gone, the district has begun cleaning the buildings to ensure that no germs will remain inside when students return.
“We’ve deep cleaned, disinfected, we used the CDC recommendations on cleaning those rooms and we’ve actually sealed those rooms off with a notice that if anyone enters that room, they document it, we go back in and re-clean it,” he said.
“We’ve discussed when we do return some scenarios where we will limit visitors or ask our community to limit visitors so that we’re not spreading too many germs or diseases and have a negative impact on what we’re trying to accomplish with some of the protocols that have put in place with the coronavirus,” he said.
Through the pandemic and the fears and isolations that have followed, Estes said he’s heartened by the work the district employees have done and how they’ve reached out to lend a hand to the vulnerable.
“I think when you look at a scenario like this that’s challenging, it can either bring out the best or the worst in people,” he said. “If you look at some of the things that we’re doing with the school system, and going into our community and being involved and making sure that the basic needs are met and students are being fed, I don’t know how it can get any better than that.”