By noon Monday, only 12 kids had stopped by PS 130 in Chinatown to avail themselves of the grab-and-go breakfast and lunch meal options.
Boxes of hummus and pretzels and bags of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches sat untouched inside the school building on Baxter Street as school staff wearing gloves and aprons hovered nearby.
Displaying a boxed lunch while standing outside, schools chancellor Richard Carranza told the assembled media that he chalked it up to the newness of the situation.
"We expect that over the course of the week, as those plans become a little more final, that we're going to have more and more students that are going to show up. And what I'm really excited about is that we have lots of different options for students," he said. "I'm holding a vegan option, for example, with hummus and apples. So we're trying to meet the needs of students, as much as possible. As we get further into this hiatus, there's going to be more options, including hot options."
The grab-and-go program is one of the main tenets of Mayor Bill de Blasio's schools shutdown plan. As pressure mounted over the past week to close schools during the novel coronavirus outbreak in the city, de Blasio repeatedly emphasized that one major obstacle was the fact that hundreds of thousands of public school students depend on the free breakfasts and lunches offered at school.
On Sunday de Blasio announced that schools are closed through the end of Spring Break on April 20th, and they may remain shuttered for the rest of the school year. Remote learning is to begin March 23rd for the system's 1.1 million students.
Meanwhile, the grab-and-go program rolled out Monday morning and is available every weekday from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to any child under 18, no matter what school they actually attend, be it charter, private or public, Carranza said. The city is also running the program at every school site for this week, and students don't need to go to their actual home institution but can pick up the food at whatever school is convenient. The plan is to then switch to centralized hubs for food service as the city does during summer breaks.
Other schools also reported slow business for the grab-and-go program: at PS 217 in Brooklyn, the lunch staff said about 10 people — some kids, some parents — had come in for lunches. Two were children who hadn’t heard that school was closed.
The DOE did not immediately respond to questions about the number of students who picked up grab-and-go meals Monday, or what would happen to the leftover food.
[UPDATE: The Department of Education said 14,000 meals were distributed Monday, and leftover food that's non-perishable will be kept in inventory with the remainder to be donated: "We have meals available at every public school building for any student who wants one, and while we distribute existing inventory of perishable items, shelf-stable items won’t go to waste. We’re also working with the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy to determine donation options when needed," said Miranda Barbot of the DOE in an email.]
Carranza also talked about the logistics of quickly moving the country's largest public school system to remote learning. The city is rapidly buying 25,000 laptop devices a day to send to households that lack connectivity, and Carranza said Apple was coordinating with the city on acquiring the appropriate technology — the city is hoping to get every student a device by the end of this week, he said.
"Our goal is that within this next week, all students will have a device. Obviously, some students already have a device; we're going to ask them to use those devices," he said.
Another issue was getting internet access to families who weren't online — according to the city comptroller, more than 917,000 households, or 29 percent lack broadband digital access as of 2017. "We know that some houses may not have Wi-Fi. We're working with companies that are going to give free Wi-Fi during this crisis," Carranza said.
The framework for remote learning was still being developed, he said, and would be tailored for each classroom environment.
"It's going to look really different in different places. Some will have online (cameras) where they'll be able to see there's their teachers," Carranza said. "Some are going to be in contact with their teachers, some will have individual independent learning curriculum where they'll be able to watch videos and then answer your questions."
He added, "but the good news as well is that we are rapidly finding out that many of our New York City teachers are already doing some very innovative things in this in this realm."
Pivoting to a sunnier outlook, Carranza said this was a chance for the New York City schools system to shine. "I have no doubt because of the teachers that we have in New York City, that at some point in the future, we're going to look back and we're going to say 'this was our finest hour,'" he said. "'We really did some innovative things and kept our students engaged.'"