Workers stay busy behind the scenes of New Hanover County schools

NHC schools prepare for students to return to class

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Just because kids are learning from home doesn’t mean schools have been quiet.

Behind the scenes, cafeteria workers have tirelessly prepped and packed free meals, bus drivers have adapted to other assignments, custodians sanitize every surface and leaders are busy preparing plans for the day its safe for students to return.

New Hanover County Schools is approaching one million meals served since the pandemic began. This spring, the district child nutrition department was used to serving 5,000 children every single day.

While the seats are empty in cafeterias, workers are still cooking, cleaning and coordinating food for the students.

There’s currently 44 sites across the county open where families can pick up free meals each day, and in just a few weeks, meals will be delivered by bus to neighborhoods again like they were in the spring.

The assistant superintendent of operations says their next challenge is basically creating a hybrid meal service program: learning how to best serve kids at home and in school at the same time.

“We’re going to be feeding kids in the classrooms in the first rotation. During that rotation we’ll gain a better idea of how many students and what other opportunities are there. We understand students don’t want to sit in a classroom all day --I wouldn’t either-- but we really need to have that information and then will expand the eating opportunities, possibly using the cafeteria, possibly using other areas of the building, and also using outdoors,” said Eddie Anderson, assistant superintendent of operations.

Child nutrition leaders have been working closely with the district’s transportation department.

Its been months sine bus driver Clara Gilbert has carried children to school, but she and her fellow drivers were able to keep their jobs during the pandemic.

Some bus drivers are doing custodial work, some are prepping food in the cafeteria and Gilbert is part of a group moving batches of free meals around town with their buses.

Right now 24 cafeteria kitchens are running and buses deliver the food to 20 additional sites – giving families 44 options on where they can pick up free breakfast and lunches.

Gilbert says she is happy to be involved in making sure kids in the district have food to eat and misses running into the children that used to ride her bus.

“‘Oh you’re my bus driver!’ Some places you go it doesn’t matter where you go they know who we are but they’re happy and they’re glad. They gotta let the little ones with them carry stuff because they don’t want to be left out either but yeah it’s very fulfilling it’s a good feeling and they’re happy,” said Gilbert.

Daily operations are just one piece of the puzzle for the transportation department. Leaders are working with individual schools to compile lists of who needs transportation and setting up three completely new bus routes to be on standby when the district switches over to face-to-face learning part time.

Each of the three cohorts will have different transportation needs.

“Our goal is to get the kids to school on time,” said Mark Clawson, the director of transportation. “It’s a lot of planning and we’ve never dealt with things like this in the past.”

Busloads of kids will be smaller to allow for social distancing. Buses will be sanitized twice a day between runs. Most families will see changes to their normal bus stops too.

The shift to community stops like neighborhood entrances and clubhouses allows for the district to use fewer drivers and keep a section of their staff on a reserve list so they can step and cover for drivers who are absent or get sick without re-working the routes.

Clawson adds that parents will sign a form at the beginning of the year, pledging that they will take their child’s temperature before getting on the bus each day. Kids will be screened by school staff when they get off the bus, before they get into school.

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