Citing safety concerns, Durham Public Schools ends meals program after employee tests positive for COVID-19

Durham Public Schools staffers distribute meals and instructional materials last week.

The Durham Public Schools announced late Thursday that it will end its food assistance program for needy students after a cafeteria worker at Bethesda Elementary School tested positive for COVID-19.

In a statement on its website, DPS said the decision was made to “keep our staff safe and well” and noted the “expansion of other food assistance program serving North Carolina families” as options for families needing help with meals.

“I am grateful for all of our staff who have provided immediate food assistance to our children while in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis,” DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said in a statement. “We now need to focus on the health and wellness of our employees.”

Today will be the last day students and families can pick up daily meals at more than 67 schools and community sites across Durham County. DPS, however, will distribute a week’s worth of meals at 13 schools Monday.

DPS announced Thursday that an employee distributing meals and instructional materials at Bethesda tested positive for COVID-19.  DPS said the employee did not come to work after taking a COVID-19 test.

A cafeteria worker with Lexington City Schools (LCS) also tested positive for the virus.

DPS’ confirmation of a positive COVID-19 test came a few hours after State Board of Education (SBE) Chairman Eric Davis announced that several school districts had reported cases of employees testing positive for the virus.

Earlier this week, the N.C. Association of Educators asked the SBE and N.C. Department to clarify safety procedures for employees still working in schools.

“We ask the State Board of Education and the Department of Public instruction to further clarify their protocols for educational professionals around employee pay and worksite safety, and call on them to provide the appropriate precautions, protections, resources, and tools that educators need to do their jobs during these incredibly difficult times,” the NCAE said in a statement.

The decision to end the meals program in Durham will impact thousands of families.

Approximately 62% of DPS students are eligible to receive free-or reduced-priced lunches. And 13 of its 53 schools qualify for the federal community eligibility provision, meaning no applications are taken and 100% of their students receive free lunches.

The Bethesda site produced 400-500 meals for various feeding sites. Staff served about 100 meals daily at the school. The district has provided tens of thousands of meals since the food distribution program began in late March.

DPS noted that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has increased benefits to food stamp recipients through April.

Officials also pointed to three drive-thru or pick-up sites with meals provided by No Kid Hungry North Carolina. Parents can text FOODNC to 877-877 for meals.  The DPS Foundation is also working with local partners and restaurants to provide meals.

DPS will distribute instructional material to support learning at home at all 53 school sites on Tuesday, April 7, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m

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