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Memphis school district suspends food distribution after employee tests positive for coronavirus

Shelby County Schools staff prepare to-go lunches for students while school is closed over concerns of the new coronavirus spreading.
Shelby County Schools staff prepare to-go lunches for students while school is closed over concerns of the new coronavirus spreading.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Shelby County Schools on Friday suspended its meal distribution program for students after an employee in its nutrition department tested positive for the new coronavirus.

The infected employee did not personally handle food, a district spokeswoman said. But the program was halted for now anyway.

“This is very unfortunate, but we cannot proceed and take any chances,” the district wrote parents.

The development means one of the nation’s most impoverished cities has lost the immediate aid of the institution best positioned to feed students amid a public health emergency.

Tennessee’s largest district serves 113,000 students, most of whom are from low income families, and had been ramping up to begin serving 15,000 lunches a day beginning Monday. Due to the spread of COVID-19, schools that already were on spring break will remain closed through at least April 3.

“Our earnest intentions to bridge the gap for food insecurities during this crisis have been abruptly altered by the spread of virus, and we are deeply sad by this development,” Superintendent Joris Ray said during an afternoon news conference.

The announcement came after district leaders were informed Friday morning about the positive test by the Shelby County Health Department.

Ray called on Memphis-area churches, food pantries, governments, and other community food distributors to step in.

“Corona, you will not defeat us. We’re going to be here for the children of Shelby County,” he said.

Local health officials were working to identify other people that the infected worker has come in contact with.

“Be assured, we are working closely with the Health Department to verify all facts and guidance so we can provide our Nutrition Services staff with more information as soon as possible,” the district’s statement said.

In preparation for next week’s food distribution, the district had identified 60 pickup sites including churches, libraries, and community centers across Memphis. The plan was to feed lunch to all hungry students under age 18.

Now those same distribution sites are where families without digital devices or internet service can pick up printed learning guides for their students through Shelby County Schools.

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