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Amherst schools begin distributing learning tools, meals to students during shutdown
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Amherst schools begin distributing learning tools, meals to students during shutdown

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AMHERST — As a steady parade of vehicles came through the back lot of Amherst County High School on Wednesday, a team of educators greeted families with smiles and conversation while distributing learning materials for the uncertain road ahead.

With all public schools in Virginia shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak for at least until the end of March, the day’s mission for school administrators was to ensure students coming through had a bagged meal, a Chromebook and a flash drive as needed to get through the unprecedented interruption in the school year.

Patricia Peters, library secretary at the high school, remained upbeat while working one of the stations and greeting families who came through.

“You are the proud owner of a Chromebook,” Peters said to a student before the vehicle pulled away.

“And you get a Chromebook!” she said to another student, a quip in the spirit of the famous “You get a car!” line from Oprah Winfrey.

From noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, administrators and school workers distributed the materials and food to all high school students. Teams will be at the two elementary middle schools those same hours today and at elementary schools Friday.

Superintendent Rob Arnold, Assistant Superintendent William Wells and others from the division’s central office staff were on hand to greet families and students and direct them through the distribution line. Wells said the division will send buses out into the community today to provide meals.

School systems have two goals during the closure: Continue the continuity of learning opportunities and to provide students meals when they are home, especially for those in need, he said.

Wells said the distribution at the schools is available to families who home school their children or who send them to private schools. “This is open to any child who lives in the county,” he said.

Amherst Middle School Principal Kelly Holmes said the division has a plan in place in case the closures are extended and the students in his school are familiar with the Chromebooks while in class. He said it is tough not seeing students in the hallways and it’s a surreal experience not having them there when they should be.

“It’s nice to see everyone coming together and working for our students,” Holmes said. “I think we’re all in education for our students and when they’re not here it’s a different place.”

Holmes said everyone wants a sense of normalcy in such an uncertain time, and it’s been an adjustment not being able to go into many restaurants and carry out food after Gov. Ralph Northam announced this week rules limiting restaurant attendance to 10 people.

Some restaurants around Madison Heights and Amherst had signs on their doors Wednesday that said service was carry out or drive-through only. At about 2 p.m., Vito’s in Amherst had a sign noting the limit for dine-in customers was 10; fewer than that were seated inside.

During an Amherst County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Chairwoman Claudia Tucker said many prayers were going up in Amherst due to the pandemic and its effects on jobs and residents’ financial struggles.

“This county is entering a season we’ve never seen before,” Tucker said while opening up the meeting with a prayer, a usual custom at board meetings.

Judy Dugan, the high school’s cafeteria manager, and assistant manager Mary Ann Jobe greeted passengers in vehicles on Lancer Lane near the school’s back lot Wednesday with bagged meals.

“It’s very quiet in there,” Jobe said of the empty cafeteria. “... We miss the children. It’s good to see them, even from afar.”

Holmes said he can’t wait to see his students in the school’s normal routine again and the division is doing what it can to serve them during such an unusual period.

“We definitely want our students back, but we want to make sure we are keeping them safe.”

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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