TAYLOR COUNTY—While the COVID-19 pandemic might have changed the landscape of the school year, one thing has remained constant and that is the dedication of Taylor County Board of Education members to ensure that the students of the county remain fed during these uncertain times.
As the school year draws closer, the Board of Education has been working to ensure student and staff safety, making necessary changes that will allow youths to return to a classroom setting. In addition, school officials have come up with ways for students to continue their education digitally, if they so choose.
While school settings might be different, one thing remains the same; students need nourishment from meals to fuel their bodies and minds.
Noting that due to the pandemic, the feeding of students might be more cumbersome with rules and regulations for safe social distancing in place, as well as a reduction in the ability for families to purchase lunches, Taylor County Board of Education Director of Child Nutrition Donette Nines came up with a possible solution.
“After sitting down with colleagues and crunching numbers, we found that there was a possibility to seek CEP status for all the schools in the county for the upcoming school year,” she explained. “However, doing so would come with a price tag for the county.”
She revealed that seeking CEP, Community Eligibility Provision, status for all five of the counties schools, that would provide free meals to all students, would cost the county between $70,000 and $90,000.
The CEP was enacted as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and provides universal meal service to children in high poverty areas.
“When checking eligibility for the program, we look at the total number of students enrolled at the individual schools versus the number of ‘identified kids’ or those that would receive free or reduced lunches,” explained Nines. “By comparing those figures, we are able to find our percent needy. If that number is within a certain percentage, we can enroll the school in the program.”
For the past few school years, Anna Jarvis Elementary, Flemington Elementary and Taylor County Middle Schools have all taken part in the program.
“This year, because of the pandemic, and the chaos it would cause having students enrolled in both in-person and virtual schooling, we knew something had to be done,” Nines commented. “When the pandemic first began, we dipped into the summer feeding funds, which provided meals to all school children up to 18 years of age, but the state told us that would not be allowed once school started back up. So, we began looking into adding Grafton High School and West Taylor Elementary School to the list.”
Through the program, the Board of Education is reimbursed for meals, although the amount varies depending on certain factors. Nines revealed that by adding the two additional schools, it decreased the percentage of reimbursement.
“Once the numbers were crunched, we learned that enrolling all schools would have a cost of anywhere between $70,000-$90,000, we wanted to present the information to the board for them to vote on,” she reported.
On Tuesday, Nines presented the figures to the board. She explained that due to social distancing guidelines and each student having to stop to input their student identification numbers for meal tracking, there was concern that students would be left with little time to eat their meals.
“To help alleviate that, the state is allowing schools to forgo inputting their student numbers,” she noted. “Instead, schools will be utilizing a tally system for body count of students eating school prepared meals.”
In addition to all students receiving the free meals and the lifted protocols for meal tracking for billing, meals would be more easily provided to students utilizing the virtual learning option.
“Without going this route, a student would have to visit their assigned school to obtain breakfast or lunch,” Nines explained. “Now, because there is no need to input student numbers, they can call any school and request their meals. So, for example, a Flemington student could visit the high school to get their food.”
She said those students would need to report which school they would be attending, so that accurate counts were reflected for each individual school.
And while Nines expressed that she would like to be able to have all of the county’s schools enrolled in CEP every year, financially it is just not feasible.
“This year is special because we won’t have all of our students attending in person. We also won’t have certain things like salad bars set up, due to the spread of the virus,” she disclosed. “I am working to cushion the cost to the county, through the removal of certain items, like the salad bars, that cost over $100,000 each year.”
After hearing all the information, they voted to approve Nines’s request to enroll all Taylor County schools in the CEP program.
The next hurdle will be approval from the state, which Nines believes will not be an issue at all.
“I am sure that they will approve the request, because it was them that suggested counties go this route to help keep kids fed, if the Board of Educations could afford that option,” she revealed. “This will be a really good thing for the students, their families and us school officials this school year, as we navigate through a new way of life.”