MONTGOMERY — The Alabama State Department of Education, as well as area food banks throughout the state, are working to feed children when schools close next week.
Gov. Kay Ivey announced on Friday that all public K-12 schools will be closed after Wednesday with the goal of reopening on April 6.
Ivey also announced a state of emergency Friday.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey said students on free and reduced lunch will still be given meals during closures, and food banks around the state said they are prepared to help with the need.
Mackey said that closing schools down was the best way to help limit the spread of the virus that has swept the globe in less than four months, particularly affecting the elderly and those with chronic health conditions.
“Closing schools is a great way to limit transmissions. We don’t have cases in schools yet, but it’s a great proactive step,” Mackey said.
He said during the last week of March, the Alabama State Department of Education will reassess if a continued closure is needed. He said they will be looking at the rate of infection in the state, where the outbreaks are occurring, and if they are clustered or widespread across the state as measurements for future decisions.
Due to the state of emergency, schools will not have to make up the missed days. Mackey said the action doesn't apply to private schools, but he expects them to close as well.
Schools will not be required to do online classes or e-learning, and Mackey cautioned students from congregating in large groups.
“The purpose of this (closure) is to give the virus more time and to mitigate the spread of this disease,” Mackey said.
He also said the state will still provide free and reduced lunches to those students who are eligible during the closure. He said he wasn’t sure when those services would begin.
The state has applied for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue serving lunches to students in schools where more than 50% of students were deemed economically disadvantaged. Mackey said he was confident they would receive that waiver.
Mackey said he wasn’t sure on the logistics yet of how students would get meals, but delivery services or drive-by pick-up points could be a possibility.
According to the State Department of Education, 364,216 students in Alabama receive free or reduced meals. About 26% of Alabama children live in poverty, which raises concerns about coronavirus-related closures and work stoppages on the low income.
The Food Bank of North Alabama helps 11 counties supply food for underserved communities, and also helps with serving students meals in the summer.
Shirley Schofield, the executive director, on Friday said they have been taking proactive measures in light of the virus, and do have a plan in place to help students in case of closures.
“In times like this we will go ahead and buy some stuff in advance, knowing that we’ll probably have to have extra food on hand and available,” Schofield said. “We’ve made purchases, and we’re supposed to be getting that in early next week.”
Schofield said the food bank's supply usually comes from donations from grocery stores like Walmart, Publix, Kroger, Aldi and Whole Foods. But to prepare for an outbreak, it started purchasing food to ensure it is fully stocked.
She said special procedures, like a drive-by pantry, may be implemented where families can pick up groceries at designated pick-up points without leaving their cars so as to limit large congregating crowds.
Elizabeth Wix is the director of partnership at Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. She said it plans on continuing services to help its communities and students in need.
“We are currently working with our administrators at our schools as to what they want to do and how to best meet the needs for their families,” Wix said. “But, yes, we plan to help them out as much as we can.”
The Central Alabama Foodbank serves Blount, Calhoun, Cherokee, Clay, Cleburne, Etowah, Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, Talladega, Walker and Winston Counties. It helps more than 230 food pantries and shelters across those counties by supplying food and resources when needed.
Wix said the food bank has maintained its usual food safety standards, and plans to abide by recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alabama Department of Health on containing the spread of the virus.
Schofield said she was confident the food bank can help address the state’s needs, but depending on how long these containment measures last, some additional help may be needed.
“We will do our best to prioritize where the help is needed, and get it there as quickly as we can,” Schofield said.