Veronica Diaz squirts mayonnaise on her son Victor's sandwich during a free summer lunch at Washington Elementary School on June 18, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Thousands of local school children will get bagged lunches starting Monday to keep them fed while their schools remain dark under a statewide closure order because of COVID-19.

Christy Perry, superintendent of the Salem-Keizer School District said Friday the decision by Gov. Kate Brown to close all public schools came after Oregon’s second-largest school district detected growing fear from staff and parents, and difficulty filling substitute teacher slots in recent days.

“Given the amount of worry out there, especially with our educators and not having enough subs … it was really the right decision of the governor, but I’m horribly worried about kids,” Perry said.

About 41,000 local kids attend Salem-Keizer schools. Seven in 10 qualify for free or reduced price breakfast and lunch at school, a fact district leaders have cited repeatedly to illustrate the challenges facing them in coming days.

Local schools also serve about 1,000 homeless students. Of those, about 180 don’t have a parent or guardian.

“We are the place where kids have safety and care in some cases that they don’t have in other places,” Perry said. District leaders were talking with organizations serving homeless students Friday to discuss how they can meet needs, she said.

Normally during school breaks, local schools serve hot lunches at select schools around Salem-Keizer so kids who rely on school meals don’t go hungry. The week of March 24 was Salem-Keizer’s spring break.

But Brown’s school cancellation and ban on large gatherings means kids can’t gather in school cafeterias either. Perry said she’s unsure if the district has the supplies to bag lunches for all kids who need them now, but they’re working to make it happen.

They plan to serve distribute 100 bags of food with both breakfast and lunch at each of 37 sites around the district, spokeswoman Lillian Govus said.

Perry said she heard concerns from school employees leading up to the closure, especially those working with special education students, who were concerned about kids at higher risk of illness being exposed to the virus.

Employee absences weren’t increasing significantly, she said. The district typically has more staff out sick this time of year because of flu and other illnesses circulating.

But finding substitutes was becoming difficult, Perry said. Normally, Salem-Keizer can fill about 88 substitute slots for every 100 they post. In recent days, that number fell to about 78.

For employees, the district is treating the closure as an emergency similar to a snow day, and following its policy on emergency closures to determine staff pay and leave. There will be no online instruction for students.

Administrators, office managers, security specialists, custodians, maintenance and facility staff will continue working and be paid, as well as classified employees who work year-round. Teachers and other licensed employees, bus drivers, crossing guards, substitutes, and classified staff (like classroom aides) who work only during the school year do not have to work.

Teachers and licensed employees will be paid during the closure.

Classified employees who do not have to come to work can use sick, personal or vacation leave, Perry said. She’s also working to find jobs for classified staff who can’t afford to lose work time in transportation, maintenance or food distribution.

At this point, employees are scheduled to return Monday, March 30, to prepare for students returning April 1.

Other local schools and colleges have also taken steps to shut down. Blanchet Catholic School is shifting to all online classes for the duration of the public school closure, principal Bob Weber said Friday.

Chemeketa Community College is canceling in-person classes and exams beginning Monday, March 16, which is the college’s finals week for winter quarter.

Instructors can give exams online or cancel them, spokeswoman Marie Hulett said. The college has not yet made an announcement about spring quarter classes.

Willamette University decided Friday to suspend all university sports, including practices, after the Northwest Conference decided to suspend conference competition, said Rob Passage, Willamette’s director of intercollegiate athletics.

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