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Still providing lunch for students

Cynthia Eley has been working in food service at Isle of Wight County Schools for 16 years. From her perspective, in the kitchen of Windsor Elementary, “not really that much” has changed about her job since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But through the doors leading back into the school’s cafeteria, the difference becomes apparent. It’s a little past 11 a.m., a time when the room would ordinarily be crowded with children eating lunch. Only now it’s nearly deserted, save for a handful of students enrolled in a daycare program.

According to Angie Smith, the school division’s director of dining services, food service employees at Windsor Elementary need to be in the building by 7 a.m. to have breakfast ready for Georgie D. Tyler Middle School students by 7:25. This year, Windsor’s kitchen is not only serving breakfast and lunch for the elementary school’s 350-plus PreK-5 students whose families have opted for in-person learning, but also the 232 Georgie Tyler students who have returned. That equates to about 90 breakfasts a day for Windsor, another 50 for Georgie Tyler, and even more lunches, even with some students bringing their own meals.

Eley is in the process of making a tray of chicken biscuits — a favorite among students — which will be frozen and then reheated for breakfast next Monday. Sausage biscuits and waffles are also popular choices. Students also have choices for lunch, including a cold option that consists of grapes, carrots, Goldfish crackers and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Asked how cafeteria staff know how many to make, Smith said that’s calculated based on the past week’s demand.

“We’re actually seeing an increase in the numbers [of students choosing school meals], which is great,” Smith said. She attributes this to the division’s success in getting information out and “making sure that parents, guardians know the meals are free.”

The division had planned to offer free breakfast and lunch for all students through Dec. 18 but Lynn Briggs, division spokeswoman, said the state has now approved Isle of Wight continuing to offer free meals through the end of the school year, June 30.

All meals intended for consumption at Windsor Elementary are made on-site, but students also receive pre-packaged take-home meals, which come from Durham, N.C. via Isle of Wight County Schools’ partnership with Chartwells K12 for the three weekdays students aren’t in school.

“Everything is pretty much as fresh as possible,” Smith said.

At the elementary and middle school levels, cafeteria staff deliver meals to students’ classrooms by going door to door with a rolling cart. At the high schools, there are two different setups. At Smithfield High, the ninth-grade wing upstairs is set up with a table of grab-and-go selections at 11 a.m. for students to take back to their desks. Grades 10 through 12 are dismissed in small groups across three lunch blocks to the cafeteria, where they also pick up to-go food to bring back to their classrooms. At Windsor High, each wing of classrooms has an assigned time for students to go to the cafeteria to pick up meals and bring them back to their desks.

“The 300 wing can go from 11:10 to 11:36 a.m.,” Smith said.

For students whose families have opted to keep them 100% virtual through the end of the first semester, the division is no longer loading meals onto school buses for distribution, but parents can pick up five days worth of breakfasts and lunches at one of three schools — Smithfield High, Georgie Tyler Middle or Carrsville Elementary — from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays.