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Principal Rebecca Donaldson, right, and nutrition services worker Alice Grajirenesorliz pass out breakfast and lunches at Weller Elementary School.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
Principal Rebecca Donaldson, right, and nutrition services worker Alice Grajirenesorliz pass out breakfast and lunches at Weller Elementary School.

Adapting in a Crisis: SPS responds to coronavirus

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For district employees, the well-being of each of the 25,000 students enrolled in Springfield Public Schools was the first priority following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jean Grabeel, director of health services for the district, said she’s never seen anything like this crisis in her nearly three decades with SPS.

“I was around with H1N1. On the flip side of that, we had a vaccine,” she said. “We’ve not seen this widespread event ever. We’ve never closed the system down other than for weather.”

She said the district has placed meeting the health, hunger and hygiene needs of students as priority No. 1.

“It’s amazing – 67,000 meals have been given as of this last week. Our nutrition services staff has been amazing and doing food prep and getting those meals together,” she said.

Every child is eligible to pick up free breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at every SPS school.

District spokesman Stephen Hall said, by comparison, in one week in early March, roughly 85,000 free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches were distributed in schools.

Before the pandemic, 53% of SPS students met guidelines for free or reduced-price lunches. Grabeel said now that need is growing, and she expects the meals provided to rise.

“It’s widespread,” she said. “With this change in climate, many people have lost their jobs and don’t have regular income right now.”

Grabeel said she has worked with nonprofits Care to Learn and Ozarks Food Harvest to provide kids with meals for the weekends and vouchers to pick up needed items at stores.

But it’s not only physical needs. She said counselors are on call for wellness checks of at-risk students, and the district has ongoing partnerships with Burrell Behavioral Health and Isabel’s House.

“With the environment we have right now, there is more stress, more worry and anxiety,” she said.

At Weller Elementary School, Principal Rebecca Donaldson said her staff is closely monitoring students. She said staff identifies which students are lacking internet access, who is at risk to run out of food and which students need extra educational support. She said 89% of her 355 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

“Not all of our parents have a car to get to Weller,” she said.

“The district is working on bus stops to give out food. We do have some very needy families.”

Superintendent John Jungmann said the district has promised no staff member will be laid off or furloughed through the initial in-person school closure. Students are expected to return to school on April 27.

Staff members have been reassigned as needed, and many have devoted extra hours leading up to the transition to online courses.

“We reduced down to essential and critical staff at each one of our buildings. We Zoom call multiple times daily with our leaders,” he said, noting only a couple hundred of the district’s thousands of staffers are working in SPS buildings.

For this school year, Jungmann doesn’t expect increased costs for the district. He said there may be a cost savings with reduced energy and transportation needs.

But he said the district is facing a reduction of revenue, specifically through Proposition C.

“Statewide sales tax revenue will be decreasing in the months to come,” he said. “We do anticipate some revenue challenges.”

In a March 24 board meeting presentation via video conference, Jungmann said Prop C has so far brought in $19.5 million of the $27 million budgeted for this school year. He predicted a shortfall in statewide revenue, and said that will likely affect the school’s budget for this school year and next.

In the coming school year, Jungmann said a predicted recession could increase student count and revenue would be slower to return than it was to dissipate.

The district also has, alongside neighboring school districts, child care programs for emergency responders and health care workers.

“We continue to collaborate weekly on how each of us are doing the business of serving the students in our community,” he said.

“It reinforces the value of the public education system.”

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