When schools and businesses started closing in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19, people all over Morgantown stepped up to bridge the gaps for health, educational continuity, and fun.
The evening of Thursday, March 12, Justin Byers was unwinding on the couch in front of the police drama Deputy. The kids were in bed, and his wife, Kari, flipping through Facebook, saw a mention that West Virginia might close the schools to slow the spread of this new virus. Knowing a lot of students need their school lunches, she wondered aloud how kids would get fed.
Feeding people is something the couple thinks about, as owners of the restaurant Bartini Prime in Suncrest Towne Centre. If you haven’t eaten there, you’ve noticed it—it’s the one with Clyde the Camel standing out front. Byers had already been watching the COVID-19 virus’s progress in China. He’d even called his banker several weeks earlier to discuss what would happen if it were to spread and affect cash flow at Bartini Prime and his other businesses. So when the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic on Wednesday, March 11, the couple went on alert.
If the schools closed, they knew, restaurants wouldn’t be far behind.
“Then we just started talking about it,” Byers says. “‘We’re going to have food; let’s feed the kids.’ We talked about how we’d do it.”
It’s been a short, sharp shock, but now we know: When a pandemic that we’re completely unprepared for rumbles through, people getting sick is only the epicenter. What we do to slow it down and the havoc that causes ripples out ahead in all directions.
And in that ripple, people step up with workarounds, generosities, and unsuspected talents to get everyone through it together with grace and humor. Morgantown magazine looked for those bright spots, and they were easy to find.
Getting Kids Fed
Friday morning—the 13th—Byers posted on Bartini Prime’s Facebook page that, if the schools did close, the restaurant would provide free boxed lunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays. About that same time, Governor Jim Justice was announcing that the schools would, in fact, close.
Within minutes, other Morgantown restaurants chimed in: Crab Shack Caribba, Get Fit Juices & Shakes, Scorers Sports Bar & Restaurant, and Mountain State Brewing Company quickly offered kids weekday lunches. The governor soon came out to assure families that schools would provide lunch during the shutdown, but more than a dozen restaurants across town joined in that weekend anyway to be part of the solution. Uber, Lyft, and other delivery drivers asked how they could help.
“People come for the atmosphere—we don’t think the carryout’s going toJUSTIN BYERS, Bartini Prime
be super big. So as food gets close to spoiling, we’re just going to cook it and serve it. These kids might get a filet mignon.”
Monday, March 16 kicked off a week of free lunches for kids all across town. “Our cooks reported to their normal work sites and prepared food there,” says Monongalia County Schools Operations Officer Beth Harvey. “They set up on the sidewalk, and people would pull up and they would hand them a bag lunch or as many as they needed. Our bus drivers also loaded up their school buses and drove their normal routes throughout the lunch time to meet the kids.”
Tropics Restaurant & Bar, The Tea Shoppe at Seneca Center, and the other dozen restaurants served lunches, too. Fat Angelo’s offered free pizza to kids. Pug’s Homemade Italian served pasta or small pizzas and apples.
Tuesday was Bartini Prime’s first day. “When people pulled up, I’d hand them a bag,” Byers said at the time. “Kids would get out—everybody likes taking pictures with the camel.” Lunches included pasta and meatballs, vegetables, cut fruit, bagged pretzels, and juice boxes.
Then, Tuesday night, Justice ordered restaurant dining rooms across the state closed starting at midnight. It was just as the Byerses predicted. And it happened so suddenly that Bartini Prime and all the other restaurants were caught with coolers full of food. As the week rolled on, whether they were offering free lunches or not, restaurants had to decide whether it would be worth it to stay open for curbside and delivery.
And meanwhile, the numbers of lunches families were showing up for at schools and bus stops exploded: 650 on Monday, 1,770 on Tuesday, 2,700 on Wednesday.
Brian Kiehl, who heads up nutrition services for Monongalia County Schools, was stunned. “We normally provide around 6,500 lunches and 4,000 breakfasts a day,” Kiehl says. “But at our open feeding sites in the summer, it’s almost nonexistent. Less than 100 a day. We were thinking this was going to be more like summer.”
When families showed up at schools for 4,000 meals on Thursday, Harvey started thinking maybe she should take all of the people who were messaging offers of help seriously.
Of course, school is not mainly about lunch. When this is all over, students need to be able to get promoted to the next grade, take challenging college admissions tests, graduate and be prepared for college. After schools closed suddenly starting March 16, teachers had to figure out how to do distance learning—fast.
“Before we left we’d started reading an abridged version of The Iliad, and I knew they wouldn’t be able to find this version online anywhere,” says Morgantown High School (MHS) 9th grade honors English teacher Jennifer Secreto. “I had to learn how to scan the document, send it to my email, and download it.” Then she uploaded it to the school district’s online learning management system, Schoology. Secreto has been able to pretty much follow her original lesson plan: after The Iliad, To Kill a Mockingbird, then an assignment she gives students every year to write letters to their future selves—she returns the letters to them, unread by her, when they graduate. Other teachers are uploading videos of their lectures to Schoology, she says, and having live chat sessions with their students.
Lecture classes translate easily to the internet, but hands-on classes require more creativity. MHS Family and Consumer Science teacher Brandi Ammons had students in her baking and pastry courses create something delicious at home and upload photos. It was a little challenging to shift her in-class assignments to students’ homes, because she doesn’t know what equipment and ingredients families have. On the other hand, “Many parents have reached out and said that they are thankful for this assignment, because it is one less thing for them to worry about,” Ammons says. She adds, presumably with a smile, “Now some of the mothers are complaining because I am putting a glitch in their diets.”
And what about performance classes? MHS choral music educator Lauren Tosh organized a “Masked Singer” show and competition. It replaces the spring concert performance experience. “It also lets them sing solos that they never have an outlet to allow others to hear,” Tosh says. “So many of my students crave these kinds of opportunities.” More than 30 choir students are submitting 1-minute videos of themselves singing behind masks that hide their identities. MHS teachers, administrators, and staff will serve as judges and, after several rounds, one student will emerge as the winner.
But this is also a college town, and WVU had half a semester left when classes were suspended in mid-March. Professors had spring break and the following week to get distance-learning materials and methods in place. Some were already teaching their classes online through the university’s Ecampus system; others had to quickly decide: Should they continue to hold class meetings at specified times, and just shift them online—the “synchronous” model of distance learning that works basically as a virtual classroom? Or should they change their class formats to take advantage of the internet’s “asynchronous” teaching model that lets each student learn when it’s convenient?
Facebook groups popped up by discipline—among art and design faculty, among laboratory science faculty—to discuss how to best make the shift. Conventional wisdom in those international discussions—because faculty around the world were facing the same decision at the same time— gravitated toward the idea that everyone was in a crunch, and professors just needed to do what felt most natural for themselves, their students, and their class material.
Students in Kirsten Stephan’s field-based Winter Dendrology course were learning 75 tree species and their winter characteristics this semester. The professor of forest resources management decided to simply teach the 15 species the class had yet to learn by photograph.
But her Forest Ecology course, based in a greenhouse lab, was not so simple to take virtual. “Students had been growing poplar trees for the entire semester, and their culminating final harvest was going to happen next week.” They’d grown cuttings in various conditions: sand, sawdust, shade, salt water, fertilizer or none. They’d measured stem and leaf biomass twice. They were about to harvest the plants, separate stems, leaves, and roots, and dry and weigh them to determine which growing conditions led the plants to invest in what kinds of growth. Instead, Stephan and her teaching assistant would do that lab work and provide the data to the students.
It’s a required course for forestry majors and for recreation, parks, and tourism resources majors, so the loss of hands-on observation and experience is unfortunate. Students are still expected to master the material, Stephan said.
She pointed out one other difficulty with the new approach: It would take her longer than the time she’d expected to spend, but she had half her usual time to devote to it because she and her husband would be tag-teaming with their out-ofschool 5- and 7-year-old children.
Sculpture professor Dylan Collins has 10 undergraduate students this semester. “It was relatively painless to transition,” he said before classes started back up online on March 30. “They were just beginning some new projects before the break, so I transitioned them to projects using found objects and a project with earthworks”—that’s environmental art with natural materials and photo documentation of the sites. “The students are bummed out about losing the sense of camaraderie and teamwork, and I’m bummed. But I also feel like it’s a good time to talk about ways to document your artwork.”
Much college theater and dance instruction works with solutions similar to Toth’s at MHS. “The faculty have been working really hard to come up with alternative exercises and projects,” said Joshua Williamson, director of WVU’s School of Theatre and Dance, before classes started back up online. “Students will be working on monologues and doing scene work at home, whether with parents or maybe with roommates. They can set up an iPhone, film each other, and send it in.”
But greater challenges lay behind the scenes. “What do you do with lighting students? What do you do with scene shop? Faculty across the country are solving the same problem at the same time,” Williamson said. “There have been great conversations in online forums sharing ideas. How do you teach something like welding online? It’s all the support people—they’re proving to be the more difficult ones to transition online. We’re still in the exploration phase.”
Williamson foresees a return in force to theater performance when this is over. “The people who typically do this work like to collaborate in groups, get together as teams,” he says. And to theater attendance: “There’s a human connection in the theater, not only with fellow audience members, but connecting with the people on stage who are playing characters, sharing joy, sadness, whatever the show is about. That’s part of the human connection we all crave.”
K-12 and college administrators grappled with important challenges beyond the sudden shift to online instruction. How do you provide equitable instruction for students who don’t have internet access? For students with learning disabilities? How can prom happen, or a yearbook be finished? Should graduation ceremonies be conducted virtually? Postponed? Cancelled? Solutions to those questions swirled as the virus’s timeline evolved.
Meeting the Most Basic Needs
Already adept at handling a chronic emergency, the social services network that provides critical services to the neediest among us was well-prepared to manage this acute one.
“What we’ve done that’s different is simply that we’re limiting public
access to the building to 10 people, and that includes people who are working on the floor,” said Colleen Lankford, executive director of food pantry and free store Christian Help, as the need to minimize gatherings became apparent in the second half of March. Staff have already long practiced good hand hygiene, and they added sanitary wipedowns every 15 minutes. “It hasn’t been that big of a stretch. And the line out front hasn’t been too bad. The main needs are food and financial support—a lot of people that have been laid off didn’t get much notice.”
Free meals served at churches and nonprofits downtown continue, but they no longer serve as social gatherings. “No group meals. The church is closed,” said Jim Chapman, kitchen manager at Morgantown Community Kitchen, which serves free lunch for about 100 at Trinity Episcopal Church on Willey every weekday. “They are still letting us operate out of the kitchen, but everything goes in to-go packaging. We don’t want people standing around together outside, so we’re handing out the food as soon as it’s ready. We have a table at the door where they can get their bagged food, whether cold or hot that day.”
One group of people Morgantown Community Kitchen began feeding was the residents at the Bartlett House emergency shelter downtown. That facility began to shelter in place on March 16. “We are bringing in all of their meals, delivering medications if there are prescriptions that need to be picked up,” says Bartlett Housing Solutions Executive Director Keri DeMasi. “We’re delivering all of their personal care items and providing as much entertainment as you can during these times.” Anyone who leaves the property for other than a medical necessity, she says, can’t return, on recommendation of the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Protection.
Bartlett House isn’t full, she said in late March. There are homeless who don’t want shelter because of addiction, mental health, social anxiety, or other reasons. Those unsheltered homeless face exceedingly difficult conditions now because some of the places they rely on for bathrooms and hand-washing—places like the meals programs and Milan Puskar Health Right—are controlling entrance tightly.
If the virus were to find its way to the unsheltered homeless population, many of whose health is compromised already, it could spread quickly and fatally. In recognition of that risk, a county homelessness task force that DeMasi serves on, along with representatives of local and state health care and homelessness organizations, is planning to make portable toilets and mobile hand washing stations available. It’s also considering the challenges of testing the unsheltered homeless for symptoms and providing quarantine and treatment for any who need it.
While the social services organizations adapted quickly, they also have new needs to handle a surge of demand and new sanitation requirements: volunteers, cleaning supplies, protective gear, and, especially funding.
Meanwhile, Feeding the Kids
During the first week of school lunch distribution, March 16–23, West Virginia went from no confirmed COVID-19 cases to 16, two of them in Monongalia County. It was becoming clear that the schools would be shut down for longer than the originally planned two weeks. And while feeding kids was a priority, gathering kitchen staff every day in order to do it couldn’t be the safest approach.
Byers, who had been first to offer students lunches, was one of the calls Monongalia County Schools Operations Officer Beth Harvey made at the end of the first week in search of partners to organize a weekly food distribution. “He said, you provide the food?” Harvey recounts. “I said ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘No problem!’” On Monday the 16th she called him again to say the school system had ordered five days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches for 1,500 kids—could he organize getting it packed and distributed on Thursday?
It’s a big ask. Imagine your phone rings. You answer it. You are asked, “Can you coordinate the storage and packaging of 15,000 meals and get it all distributed to hungry kids across the county three days from now?” You might understandably hesitate. Where would a person even start?
Byers will tell you it’s the volunteers that made what followed happen, and that’s true—but it clearly took a logistics mastermind to pull it off. He owns a tennis club near University High School, so the decision to use that site for receiving, packing, and redistributing was a no-brainer. By the afternoon of Tuesday, March 24, the 15 most popular bus stops across the county had been established as distribution sites, and a web page was created where people could sign up, feedmonkids.com. Sysco and Mona Supply had offered refrigerated trucks for food storage. On Wednesday, 20 volunteers in two assembly lines bagged and boxed 1,500 packages of five breakfasts and five lunches each and another 1,500 packages of drinks. The information network was so efficient that, in two days, families had signed up to receive meals for 1,200 kids, leaving a comfortable few hundred packages for anyone who would just show up. And on Thursday, Byers doesn’t even know how many volunteers—“tons”—turned out to distribute.
The first weekly meal distribution, on March 26, wasn’t exactly perfect—the meals were a little skimpy, and not all of the “extra” meals ended up where they were needed, so a small number of families were helped by others. Hundreds of additional people were signed up on-site.
That same day, Kiehl at the school system placed orders for meals for twice as many students for the following week’s distribution. He was having a hard time sourcing the right kinds of foods from the school district’s suppliers. “We’re ordering different foods than we usually do, trying to order individually wrapped foods, like breakfast cereal bars, that
are easy to redistribute,” he explained. Because it wasn’t just him—every school system across the nation that plays an important role in its students’ nutrition must have been placing similar orders, and it was a sudden strain on the market. “Heading toward the end of the school year, I’m guessing manufacturers were cutting back on many of the school items that are individually wrapped,” Kiehl says. “All of a sudden we’re ordering 100 times the amount we’d normally order, while they’re cutting back.”
In preparation for the second weekly distribution, scheduled for April 2, Kiehl managed to source a heartier five breakfasts and five lunches, plus drinks, for 3,000, foods like bowls of cereal, fruit cups and applesauce, pepperoni calzones—almost all of it, to his credit, individually wrapped.
When volunteers showed up at the tennis club Wednesday morning to pack, sign-ups had already hit 2,700.
“It’s so much better this week,” Byers said. “We’ve got 60 volunteers packing in shifts, 9 to noon, noon to 3, 3 to 6. We’ve got someone coming in to feed them lunch. Last week feedmonkids.com was just a sign-up form; now it’s a website where you can also see the menu or you can volunteer.” Forty people had volunteered to deliver on Thursday, and a new system would get the delivery vans loaded and off more smoothly. And Morgantown Printing and Binding was printing signs for the distribution sites to let families know they should pull up in their cars rather than parking and
standing in line.
Most of the restaurants in town that initially offered student lunches stopped during the second week—some switching to feeding health care workers—because student lunch distribution was now centralized and under control. Yet, their owners stayed involved. “All the restaurants have called and said, ‘What can we do?’” Byers said as the second weekly distribution was in preparation. “Polly at Oliverio’s came and packed last week. Bron from Crab Shack has been there, Brendan from Tropics, others—all the restaurants are really good about helping if we need anything.”
Similarly, school system personnel are volunteering generously. “Ron posts on Facebook, and people come out,” said retired AP psychology teacher and MHS assistant principal Richard Vidulich of county Board of Education President Ron Lytle as both packed drinks for students.
WVU contributed stacks of boxes for transporting packaged meals, PACE Enterprises was on hand to take used cartons away for shredding, and so many other people and businesses pitched in.
Byers had twice as many meals to coordinate the second week as the first,
and more than twice the volume. But if anything, the outpouring of support
in the community energized him for the task. “The volunteers and the
contributions have just been amazing,” he said. “Next week, I think we might be moving this over to Chuck’s Furniture or Mylan Park—Pantry Plus More and United Way of Mon and Preston Counties are adding 1,000 family boxes.” He beamed. “We’re going to feed even more people.”