COVID-19 may have caused the Future School of Fort Smith to take classes virtual starting Jan. 14, but students have not missed their breakfast and lunches. When child nutrition staff learned the school was going virtual, they began making plans to feed students at home.
Superintendent Boyd Logan made the decision to go virtual from Jan. 14-19 because of the number of staff members needing to quarantine following new guidelines. The new guidelines said that because the Omicron variant of COVID-19 had different symptoms than previous variants, anyone with allergy-like symptoms should be tested and quarantined even if they are not experiencing fever, Logan said.
“Basically, we had so many staff out because of quarantine and others who had tested positive for COVID and were quarantined that we could not supervise our students adequately. We decided to take things virtually until all test results were back and those who had tested positive but were asymptomatic had done the necessary five-day quarantine,” Logan said.
School returned to in-building session Thursday (Jan. 20).
But going virtual for even a few days can cause some students to miss meals they can’t afford to miss. The Future School of Fort Smith is a tuition-free, public charter high school for students in ninth through 12th grade, so students are mostly over the age of 13.
“We can tell the students who just aren’t getting enough food at home. We know they need these school lunches,” said Teressa Gasque, child nutrition director at the school.
School officials gave students a form to fill out if they wanted virtual meals. The plan benefited both the students who were able to have breakfast and lunch delivered to their homes and hourly employees who might not be working while the school doors were closed, Gasque said. The kitchen staff made the meals, and hourly employees volunteered to deliver the meals using vans the school has for transportation needs, she said.
The first day the school was held virtually (Jan. 14), staff delivered, which included both a breakfast and a lunch. That number grew to 66 on Jan. 15. The school did not deliver meals Monday (Jan. 17) because it was a scheduled holiday when students were not to attend. On Tuesday (Jan. 18) and Wednesday (Jan. 19), the school delivered 37 and 43 meals respectively. Though they tried to get meals out as soon as they were notified of a student needing one, some meals didn’t get delivered until around 10 a.m, Gasque said.
“Some get their breakfast a little late, but they’re getting meals,” she said. “For breakfast one day, students got a Very Berry Smoothie, a chocolate chip muffin, fruit and milk.”
Lunch Wednesday was chicken alfredo pasta, a salad, fruit and milk.
“We tried really hard to make up nutritious meals that, while they need refrigeration and heating, aren’t just a sandwich,” Gasque said.
She admitted that the first day’s lunch was indeed a ham and cheese sandwich along with broccoli, baby carrots, ranch dip, a cookie and milk, but the selections have grown since then.
“We were scrambling to find something we could do. So the first day we had sandwiches,” she said. “We’ve come up with more. We want meals that are convenient for the family and the kids. The most they have to do is put it in the microwave for a little bit, so even younger students can do it.”
Another hurdle staff had to overcome was the negative perception often attached to free meals.
“We want to convince them, there is no stigma attached to getting free lunches. In school, it’s easier. Everyone is getting the meal. But when they have to come up and get the free lunch, it’s a little harder,” Gasque said.
Delivering the meals to the students’ homes eases those concerns and allows the students to have the nutrition they need, she said. Deliveries also help with students who cannot get a ride to the school because their parents are at jobs. Also, because the school serves a large area that doesn’t have traditional school district boundaries, some students live too far away to make it there just for a meal, she said. Gasque said meals were delivered to students as far away as Greenwood and Alma.
Making sure the students’ get their meals also helps the school keep funding for lunches in the future. The lunches, along with all the lunches the school serves, are funded in a large part by the National School Lunch Program, Gasque said. The funding for those lunches is determined by how many lunches were served the previous year, though through COVID funding has remained constant, she said.
“But if we aren’t feeding the same number of students, our funding can be less,” she said. “With school being virtual, students are technically in school, so the lunches we are delivering count in our totals.”
Gasque said the school’s goal is to make certain parents understand that staff want to help because they understand having a teenager to feed at home during the day is not something they had planned for and that by accepting the meals, they are helping the school in return.
Gasque said COVID has kept the child nutrition staff on their toes, noting she has had to reconsider planned meals or search for different vendors when some supplies have been hard to get.
“We have nachos planned for tomorrow (Jan. 20), but if something happens and school is still virtual, we’ll figure out a way to package them to send home,” Gasque said.
The school typically has two breakfast periods, a hot breakfast service before classes begin and a grab-and-go breakfast with an individually wrapped item, fruit and milk that is available during the passing period between the first and second classes. Gasque said they serve around 80 breakfasts each day when the students are physically in school and 100-110 lunches.