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Positive virus tests spurs Durham Public Schools to cancel popular meals program

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Gail Clay had been working as an essential employee for Durham Public Schools, delivering meals to needy children while schools are closed. (Photo: Greg Childress)

A week ago, Gail Clay, a Durham Public Schools bus driver, was what’s known these days as an “essential employee.”

That meant the work Clay did was important enough that she was expected to show up, even though schools have been closed since March 13 to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19.

Meanwhile, DPS employees with less essential jobs or work they could perform remotely were told to stay home to help slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Clay’s “essential” duties included picking up food at Bethesda Elementary School and delivering it to needy students at community sites.  The district provided 55,711 meals during the program’s first week of operation. 

But after an employee at Bethesda Elementary School tested positive for the virus last week, DPS announced it would end its popular [2]meal delivery program. Clay and others working at Bethesda were told to go to the county health department and get tested.

“I haven’t shown any symptoms then or now and I thank God for that because I got kids at home,” Clay said.

With two teenage sons in the back seat wearing protective masks, Clay, also in a mask, was among the parents in a long line of idling cars at Southwest Elementary School waiting to pick up a week’s worth of meals on Monday, the program’s final day.

Clay went from an essential employee delivering food to a parent whose essential job has become finding food to feed her family. 

“It’s going to impact a lot of kids,” Clay said of the decision to end the program. 

DPS spokesman William Sudderth noted that the meals program was also stopped, in part, due to a shortage of workers. Many employees have applied for state emergency leave, which allows them to receive full pay through April even if there’s no work for them on site or work they can do from home. 

Differing views on a difficult decision

Despite the hardships expected to result of the meal program’s closing, Clay said DPS made the right call after the Bethesda employee tested positive for COVID-19. 

“The virus going around, people testing positive, employees testing positive, that’s why we had to put a stop to this,” Clay said. “We can’t risk the kids getting sick. That’s the reason for them not being in school.” 

Clay said DPS regularly took employees’ temperatures as a safety measure. But that effort didnt go far enough, she said. 

“I was out there interacting with the kids, interacting with my co-workers,” Clay said. “Every day they’d take our temperatures but that’s just not enough. If you had one (a temperature), you couldn’t work. Still, someone came up positive and you can’t risk that with these kids.” 

She said that once the employee at Bethesda tested positive, many staffers were reluctant to return to work, even though they know how important the meals were to Durham’s poorest children. 

“We (bus drivers and cafeteria workers) already know about the hungry kids, and we’re not just talking about homeless kids, we’re talking about hungry kids who live in homes,” Clay said.  

Support for ending the program, however, was not universal. Rick Clanton arrived at Southwest Elementary School on Monday to pick up meals. The father of two disagreed with the decision to cancel the program. 

“I don’t really think it’s the right thing to do,” Clanton said. “Everybody just has to watch out for each other, wear their masks and do their part. You just can’t stop everything, the food and the schoolwork.” 

Clanton said the loss of the meals program would be felt in his home. “It’s going to impact us a great deal,” said Clanton, who is currently without a job. “The kids were on the free lunch program as it is. It’s going to make a big difference.” 

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A Durham Public Schools food distribution site. The district ended the free meals program after a worker at Bethesda Elementary School tested positive for COVID-19. (Photo: Greg Childress)

Blacks hit hardest by virus 

Though there was no indication that it played a role in the DPS decision, the meals program was staffed mostly by a group that has suffered disproportionately in the pandemic: workers of color.

As multiple [4] news [5] reports [6] have revealed in recent days, people of color in the U.S. are contracting the virus and dying at alarming rates — at least in part because they often work in frontline positions in grocery stores and other essential businesses. WFAE radio reported earlier this week [7] that 37% of the COVID-19 cases in North Carolina have involved Black people, even though they account for only around 22% of the state population. In Mecklenburg County, where a third of the residents are Black, the story noted, almost 45% of cases have involved Blacks.

Similar disparities exist in Michigan and New Orleans and other COVID-19 hotspots across America. 

The DPS meals program was staffed overwhelmingly by Black and Latinx cafeteria workers and bus drivers — many of whom worked without masks, gloves and other protective gear recommended by health experts. 

Anthony Fauci, who sits on President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, said this week that the pandemic is “shining a bright light” on the health disparities between Blacks and whites. “Yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they [Blacks] are suffering disproportionately,” Fauci said at a Tuesday press conference. 

Cooper addressed the disparity Wednesday when asked about it by a reporter during a COVID-19 update. 

He said state officials are “very concerned” about the disparity, which shows “we need to redouble our efforts to make sure all North Carolinians have access to quality health care.” 

Cooper was alluding to the refusal of Republican legislative leaders to accede to his repeated calls to expand Medicaid under the terms of the Affordable Care Act — a move that would provide health insurance coverage hundreds of thousands of uninsured low-income North Carolinians. The impasse over Medicaid expansion is one reason lawmakers never reached agreement on state budget for the current fiscal year.  

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said higher rates of heart disease and diabetes in Black communities are also responsible for the disparity in death rates. 

“So, it’s going to have COVID-19 impact them more substantially,” Cohen said. “I think it’s also important to note who are our essential workers, and they are likely to be from our communities of color. They’re our nurses, they’re our folks at grocery stores, they’re our long-term care workers and they have more exposure risk as we move through this.” 

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Food options 

Fortunately for the Clay and Clanton families and others who need supplemental meals, Durham is not without other options. 

DPS has directed families to No Kid Hungry North Carolina [9], which can help them identify drive-thru and pick-ups sites where meals are being distributed.  

Tamara Baker, project and communications director for the nonprofit, is confident the Durham community will figure out a way to continue to feed its children. 

“There are a lot of really smart, talented people who care deeply about these children who are working on solutions,” Baker said. “I think they are doing all that they can to address this need. Durham is in a unique, positive situation in that regard in that they have so many great leaders putting their heads together.” 

Jennifer Caslin, marketing and project manager for the Food Ban [10]k of Central and Eastern North Carolina, said there has been no significant increase in the number of families needing food assistance since DPS ended its meals program. 

I can’t say we seen a huge impact above and beyond what we’ve already been seeing but certainly, we’re monitoring it,” Caslin said. 

She said the Food Bank activated summer food service program sites when school districts began to close.   “We have some of those up and running in the Durham area right now, and certainly families in need can also go to one of the Food Bank’s partner agencies and receive groceries just like they would at any other time,” Caslin said. 

She said the loss of the DPS meals will be noticed, however. Obviously, the school meals were helping and that’s going to be a hit for anyone who was receiving those meals,” Caslin said. But you can also find a pantry in your local area where you can go and receive food for the whole family.” 

The DPS Foundation [11], an independent nonprofit whose mission is to help strengthen Durham schools, is working with local partners and restaurants to provide meals to families on weekends.  

The Foundation began delivering daily meals after DPS announced it was closing, but will only deliver them on weekends.. 

“We believe that no student should go hungry or fall behind because of COVID-19 school closures,” Magan Gonzales-Smith, the foundations executive director said in a statement last week. “With help from our partners and the Durham community, we can provide much-needed support to families facing food insecurity in this difficult and unprecedented time.”   

A double whammy 

Meanwhile, Clay’s job as a bus driver is on hold for now. And so too, is her work as a hairstylist. Businesses such as beauty salons and barbershops were deemed nonessential and ordered closed by Gov. Cooper through at least April 29, when his stay-at-home order is due to expire. Public schools, though, are closed through May 15.

“With this job [bus driver], they’ll keep paying us for a few weeks but I’m out of work from both of my jobs,” Clay said. “I’m supposed to be under self-quarantine. I came out to get this food for my kids and then I’m going back in. That’s how important this is for me. Even though this food is not going to last until Friday, I came out to get it for my kids.”