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School staff pack up meals as part of a massive effort to feed families during Michigan’s statewide school shut down. Photo Credit: Eleanore Catolico/Chalkbeat

School staff pack up meals as part of a massive effort to feed families during Michigan’s statewide school shut down. Photo Credit: Eleanore Catolico/Chalkbeat

Detroit scales back meals distribution plan in light of employee concerns

The Detroit school district is scaling back its effort to distribute meals because of employees’ health concerns, as more of them test positive for the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Beginning Tuesday, meals will be discontinued. They’ll return Thursday. But instead of five days a week, meals will be distributed on Mondays and Thursdays. Additional meals will be provided on those dates. 

The number of schools is also being reduced — from 58 to 17.

Earlier in the day Monday, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the district was reassessing how to provide meals to students while ensuring the health of all involved.

The decision to scale back comes on the same day Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a stay-at-home order that requires Michigan residents to stay put unless they work in essential jobs. Whitmer also announced she is extending the shutdown of schools until April 13. It originally had extended through April 5.

On March 14, a staff member at Osborn High School tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, several more employees and contractors have notified the district they tested positive, a spokeswoman said Monday afternoon.

It’s unclear how the stay-at-home order affects efforts across Michigan to provide meals to students. Nearly half of Michigan’s 1.5 million public school students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, a common barometer of poverty. Many students rely on school for breakfast and lunch.

Whitmer’s office Monday said school employees distributing meals are exempt from her order.

“Gov. Whitmer is committed to ensuring that Michigan students have access to the food they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the governor’s executive order, K-12 school food services are considered critical infrastructure and should continue. The governor deeply appreciates the vital work that our frontline school employees are doing every day to ensure that our kids have the food they need while the order is in effect.”

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, said in a statement that district leaders are trying to balance the importance of meal distribution with the safety of workers.

“Districts are handling this distribution based on the needs of the students, their delivery/pick-up arrangements, and staff capacity, and they will continue to balance all of these factors in order to do what is best for all involved.”

Ralph Bland, president of New Paradigm for Education, said the handful of charter schools his company manages in Detroit are cutting back from five days of meal distribution down to two days, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We know some people are feeling apprehensive and nervous,” Bland said. “We want to make sure we’re watching out for their well-being and limit person-to-person contact.”

Bland said it’s important to keep the meals flowing.

“Some of our families — they need it,” he said.

It’ll be business as usual in the Dearborn school district, where a spokesman said Monday that the meals distribution schedule will continue.

Also, several community agencies, including the YMCA and Gleaners Community Food Bank, said they will continue to provide meals and groceries. Mayor Mike Duggan said meals also will be available at several recreation centers.

Vitti said he understands Whitmer’s order, but it has “led to more employees being uncomfortable with working within the current structure of the DPSCD distribution sites.”

Whitmer’s stay-at-home order begins at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday and continues through April 13. She said the only exceptions are for essential operations such as hospital workers. Grocery stores, banks, gas stations, and other essential services will still be open. 

“This disease can’t spread person to person if we’re not all out together,” Whitmer said.