With more than 53,000 students, including many who depend on the stable meals provided at their schools, figuring out how existing feeding programs could operate remotely and safely during the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the Mobile County Public School System’s first challenges.
Earlier this week, Superintendent Chresal Threadgill said it was one of his first concerns when state officials closed all of Alabama’s public schools last month and then extended those closures into June.
“Our goal was to make sure we were providing meals for all of our students and doing that while keeping social distance and not having more than 10 people together. That was a challenge in itself,” Threadgill said. “I just want to give a shoutout to all of our cafeteria workers and bus drivers as well as our volunteers. We have so many dedicated volunteers from the central office, as well as teachers and principals volunteering their time. They’re not getting paid to help provide lunches for students.”
The system was already providing free lunch and breakfast through state and federal programs that allow all students enrolled in school districts from low-income areas to get two daily meals at no cost. Despite all the disruption COVID-19 has caused, that program has continued with a few logistical changes.
According to Threadgill, dozens of MCPSS employees and volunteers are currently making close to 50,000 meals a day and as many as 250,000 meals a week. The meals are made and distributed through a network of 21 preparation sites and delivered by school bus to 66 dropoff sites around Mobile County.
In the early days of the transitions, Threadgill, Deputy Superintendent Lakesha Brackins and other members of the MCPSS leadership team worked at sites helping to prepare and distribute food.
At the same time, other school systems in Alabama — particularly large systems in heavily populated areas — have stopped providing meals for students. Earlier this month Jefferson County Schools and Birmingham City Schools both announced they would no longer be providing meals over concerns that the distribution could lead to the spread of the novel coronavirus that caused COVID-19.
Jefferson County has more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any other county. Though Mobile County is second in terms of known cases of the disease, Threadgill said this week that MCPSS is taking every precaution — using social distancing, limiting group sizes and wearing protective equipment.
He also said providing meals for students is a service he hopes MCPSS can continue as schools remain shut down, and as of now, the feeding program is scheduled to run through May 22.
Outside of food, MCPSS also had to overcome challenges to roll out its “blended learning” plan for the tens of thousands of students finishing the school year in their homes.
Though it took a couple of weeks to get off the ground, Threadgill said the program is using a combination of approaches to reach students no matter where they live or what resources they have. He called the efforts of his staff “amazing.”
“That was another huge challenge because some kids don’t have internet access, some kids don’t have devices … some don’t even have televisions,” he said. “We had to get an idea of what students didn’t have and then we started delivering devices, wi-fi hotspots and we even delivered some TVs.”
According to MCPSS spokeswoman Rena Philips, the system conducted a telephone survey with parents throughout the district to assess what they might need in order for their children to continue learning at home.
Then, in just two weeks, MCPSS distributed 5,000 wi-fi hotspots and 10,000 devices like laptops and tablets to students throughout the county.
Some of those were already owned, but MCPSS spent close to $500,000 buying thousands of additional devices using existing funding for textbooks and classroom technology.
According to Philips, the system only provided one device per household and the first priority was given to 2020 seniors who still have work to complete in order to meet their graduation requirements.
Philips also said that some of those costs have been offset by savings that have resulted from schools being closed, such as reduced use of school buses and lower energy costs at schools.
Currently, students with access to a laptop or other device can connect directly to their teachers’ lessons via Google Classroom or other digital learning platforms available to students.
Those online learning platforms allow students to access live, interactive instruction with their teachers as well as an archive of pre-recorded lessons for those who are unable to log on during a particular class time.
Reliable internet service has also been a challenge in some of the rural areas of Mobile County, but MCPSS is also distributing paper academic packets to students who need them. As of last week, MCPSS is also broadcasting live teaching each day through partnerships with WALA FOX10 and WJTC UTV 44.
From Pre-K to 11th grade and English to algebra, those broadcasts cover an array of subjects featuring a rotating cast of teachers. Most of the programming also includes a sign language interpreter for students who are hearing impaired.
Students and their parents can watch those lessons on Comcast (channel 15), AT&T Uverse (On-Demand, channel 99), Mediacom (channel 81), Roku boxes or on the new digital channel, Fox 10.6. UTV44 is also airing math and reading/language arts lessons for two hours daily. The same lessons are also simultaneously live-streamed through MCPSS’ various social media channels as well.
“We have reinvented public education in a matter of weeks, and we’re still learning as we go along each day,” Phililps said. “Our students have been phenomenal, our teachers have been flexible and parents have been very patient.”
The school system has also set up a hotline for parents to provide academic support, technical support and counseling for students. It operates weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and can be reached at (251) 221-7777. Philips said the hotline received thousands of calls the first-day distance learning started.
Another thing MCPSS has done to help parents is simplify some of the standards students would have to meet in a normal classroom setting, with the exception of what is required of graduating seniors.
While the system is still educating children to the best of its ability, Philips said administrators wanted to “make it easy for them and their parents to continue learning at home without overwhelming them.”
Threadgill sat down to discuss how MCPSS is adapting to the changes forced upon by COVID-19 in a recent interview with Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
Stimpson, who has been a vocal supporter of Threadgill since he took the helm at MCPSS in 2018, said some of the school system’s work making this difficult time as easy as possible for students and parents has “flown under the radar.”
“I’ve said many times that we cannot transform the city of Mobile if we don’t transform the public school system and get it to where it should be,” Stimpson said. “I hope that everybody understands what [Threadgill] and [his] team have done in just a couple of weeks is nothing short of Herculean. It’s indicative of embracing new ideas and can-do attitude of: ‘We’ve got to make it happen.’”
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