Pickerington Schools food-service program evolves during pandemic

NATE ELLIS
nellis@thisweeknews.com
ThisWeek group

Like almost all things in education, this year's Pickerington Schools food-services program will be vastly different, as officials seek to implement public health and safety measures related to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and feed students who will be out of school buildings more than half of the week.

Assuming district officials, aided by guidance from local and state health officials, don't change current plans, Pickerington Schools will open the 2020-21 school year Aug. 31 under a hybrid format.

Under the plan, students who enrolled in the district's Virtual Learning Academy will take classes online the entire school year while the rest of the student body will attend classes in school buildings twice a week and receive instruction online the other three days.

Those changes were instituted to give parents and students options for learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

They also are designed to limit the number of students in school buildings each day so that social distancing could be maintained.

Amid the major reconfigurations of the educational format has been an overhaul of how the district will feed students.

Plexiglass shields have been installed in lunchrooms to provide barriers between students and food-services staff.

Students will not be permitted to self-serve select items buffet style, as they have done in the past.

"In an effort to be safe for our employees and students, we're not doing any self-service," said Judy Riley, the district's food-services supervisor.

"We're also not putting out any silverware or condiment packets."

Staff members will distribute all food items, silverware and condiment packets, with the exception of prepackaged side dishes that students may choose from in cafeterias.

Additionally, signs have been placed throughout cafeterias to help students maintain social distancing while in lunch lines and eating.

"There will be staff monitoring," Riley said. "It's going to be very safe and controlled."

Those are steps the district is taking to feed students while they are in school buildings.

Additionally, food-services employees will provide options for students during the three days they will be taking classes online away from school buildings.

"They won't be there 60% of the time," said Joanne Campbell, the district's assistant food-services supervisor. "So we'll provide three bagged breakfasts and lunches they can take home for when they're not physically at school."

Student meals, including bagged, take-home meals, must be paid for by students.

Riley said it will be important for students who plan to take home bagged meals to have money in their MyPaymentsPlus accounts.

She said the account systems have been upgraded so parents or guardians with more than one child attending Pickerington schools could put money in multiple accounts and only be charged a single $2 service fee. In the past, the $2 fee was assessed for each account to which money was deposited.

The district is encouraging parents and guardians to pay for meals online to reduce handling of money in lunchrooms.

Campbell said the online system would be offered in numerous languages to better serve the district's diverse student body, parents and guardians.

"We will still take cash and checks like we did before," Campbell said.

"However, due to safety concerns about handling money, we won't give any change back."

Campbell said any money students pay that is more than the price of their meals will be added to their accounts for future purchases.

Students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals will continue to receive free or discounted-price food, Riley said.

Additionally, the district is finalizing its plan for feeding students who take all of their courses online through the virtual academy.

"We plan to feed the five-day virtual kids on Wednesday," Riley said. "We will serve them (meals) for the week and distribute them from the appropriate buildings. We have not decided if it will be a few or all buildings.

"(For) these meals, parents can sign up and show identification when they pick up the meals. Sign-up for meals is still being worked out."

The food-services department is varying food offerings to start the year.

The department operates under its own budget and is not funded through the district's general operating fund.

Therefore, district officials must make sure the department generates enough revenue from breakfast and lunch sales to support staff salaries, food inventories and equipment.

Riley said she estimates the district will serve roughly 2,000 fewer students this year because of students enrolling in the online academy program.

Therefore, her department has cut back on the variety of food options being provided.

"We're keeping our inventory real tight and kind of limiting the menu choices," Riley said. "We'll look at that and revisit late this fall, but we studied our menus and the trends and looked at the highest-selling items.

"We want to increase participation in our program by putting the bestselling items out there."

Like food offerings, Riley said, she will evaluate staffing levels the first month or two of the school year to make sure her department is running efficiently and making ends meet.

"We're telling our employees to be flexible," she said. "Things are going to change."

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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