School district serves up food, comfort to students during pandemic

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At Red Cedar Elementary School one recent morning, families who came to pick up free breakfasts and lunches being offered by Beaufort County School District got more than just food.

The students who received the meals were the focus of loving attention and a reminder about the importance of academics from teachers and staff who volunteered their time. Wearing gloves and smiles, the volunteers asked each parent how many children were in the car.

The driver then pulled forward and the adult picked up the correct number of meals off the table.

The breakfast bags contained cinnamon toast cereal, graham crackers and apple juice. The lunch bags had a turkey and cheese sandwich, carrots and an apple.

“I miss you!” pre-kindergarten teacher Stacy Grey told one of her students strapped into a car seat in the back of an SUV. “I’ll see you soon.”

The next car approached and Donna Petty, who teaches science at Bluffton Middle School, greeted the family inside from a safe distance.

 “Remember to read!” she reminded the boy in the car as the family pulled away.

Anissa Ellison, Red Cedar’s cafeteria manager, starts packing the meals at 6 a.m. weekday mornings. Ellison is employed by Sodexo, the school district’s food service contractor.

Meals are prepared and transported to 12 sites across the county: Battery Creek High School, Beaufort High School, Beaufort Middle School, Bluffton High School, Hilton Head Island High School, James J. Davis Early Childhood Center, Okatie Elementary School, Red Cedar Elementary School, St. Helena Elementary School, Whale Branch Early College High School, Whale Branch Middle School and the Port Royal YMCA.

The first week of school closures saw more than 17,000 free student meals distributed county-wide, including distribution points at schools and stops on school bus routes.
The buses drive through neighborhoods where students live and stop at designated locations, where they wait 20 minutes for students to come pick up meals before moving on to the next stop.

Procedures at the distribution sites are designed to maintain safe physical distances between parents, students, food service workers and bus drivers. No food is consumed on-site. The free meals program is available to any child under age 18 in Beaufort County.

The meals program is only one of several outreach initiatives by the school district in response to the COVID-19 outbreak that forced school closures throughout the state.
To make sure students are able to complete their work from home, teachers prepared packets for students in lower grades and in some cases drove them to their homes. Older students are doing their schoolwork and interacting with their teachers on devices provided by the school district.

To make sure that all students have access to the internet, the school district has partnered with Hargray, which is offering 60 days of free internet service to households with students that don’t already have Hargray service. Beaufort County Superintendent Dr. Frank Rodriguez discussed the idea with Hargray executives, who quickly put the plan together and launched it. The company is also offering discounts on bandwidth upgrades.

Hours of free-meals distribution are 9 a.m. to noon. The distribution school buses are traveling to neighborhood stops during the same timeframe.

For a complete list of meal pickup locations and school bus stops, go to beaufortschools.net. For more information about free internet service for families with students, go to hargray.com/freeinternet