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Students are hungry for more than food on the first day of Boston Public Schools closure

A few children, missing news, wait futilely at school bus stops

Malaki Solo, 12, hung out with his mother, Larae Robinson, in their Dorchester home. The 12-year-old said he wants to maintain a sense of structure.
Malaki Solo, 12, hung out with his mother, Larae Robinson, in their Dorchester home. The 12-year-old said he wants to maintain a sense of structure.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

School might be out for several weeks in Boston, but 12-year-old Malaki Solo was determined not to lose his daily routine.

So as his four siblings slept in the family’s Dorchester apartment at 8:15 a.m. Tuesday, Malaki donned his school uniform, a cobalt blue polo shirt embroidered with his school’s name: Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School. And he headed out alone into lightly falling snow for the short walk to the nearest open school.

Malaki went to the Lee K-8 School in search of food for his family. It’s one of 16 sites that the school district opened Tuesday, the first day of citywide school closures, to hand out daily free breakfasts and lunches for families.

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The sixth-grader, who left the school hugging a jumble of milk cartons, packaged sandwiches, and yogurt in his arms, said he came to the school for more than food: He also wanted to maintain a sense of structure. Otherwise, he worried that when school resumes — the current estimate for Boston is April 27 — his “routine will be messed up.”

Malaki Solo stood for a portrait at his Dorchester home.
Malaki Solo stood for a portrait at his Dorchester home. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Boston school officials handed out 1,360 meals to people like Malaki on Tuesday, on a logistically challenging and sometimes confusing first day of the school shutdown. The district, which typically serves 50,000 meals daily at 125 school buildings, had to accommodate all students at just the 16 locations that were open Tuesday, said Laura Benavidez, executive director of the district’s food and nutritional services. The city also served nearly 4,000 additional meals Tuesday at dozens of other food sites at YMCAs, community centers, and other locations, the mayor’s office said.

Her team had to ensure that people did not congregate in one area, that they could easily grab food to go, and that volunteers — school, city, and community employees — helped parents stay safe.

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“There’re a lot of different rules that go into this thought process versus what we currently do every day where lunches and breakfasts are very social events,” Benavidez said.

But many of the families and students who flocked to the meal distribution sites were looking for more than the packages of cereal and fruit, turkey and cheese sandwiches, and spaghetti and carrot sticks in their grab and go meals. Many visitors were also looking for student work packets, medications, clarity about the length of the closures — as well as a sense of normalcy in their deeply upended lives.

Amanda Lara (right) picked up lesson plans, breakfast, and lunch for her two grandchildren.
Amanda Lara (right) picked up lesson plans, breakfast, and lunch for her two grandchildren.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

While several of the students, parents, and other visitors were grateful to the city and school district for getting the food sites up and running so speedily, in some cases information was in short supply.

Indeed, some children did not seem to know that schools were closed. A Globe reporter saw several young children at Dorchester bus stops waiting on the sidewalk just after 7 a.m. for school buses that would never come.

Two of them, brothers ages 9 and 10, said that they were headed to the Russell Elementary School a little over a mile away. Immigrants from the Dominican Republic, they spoke in Spanish.

“En serio?” the 10-year-old said — “seriously?” — when the reporter told him school would likely be canceled for at least a few weeks. He said his mother’s cellphone had been shut off, so he’d likely missed calls over the weekend about the pending closure, and the boys had missed school on Monday. The brothers then hiked up their heavy, matching black backpacks and shuffled down the street toward home.

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For other families, the confusion centered on the city’s offer of laptop computers that students can use at home. The district is planning to distribute 20,000 Chromebooks this week and early next week, according to Boston Public Schools communication director Jessica Ridlen. District staff will contact parents by e-mail to set up individual appointments to pick up the computers.

But the computers were not available in some locations on Tuesday, something Louisa Blue realized only after she had ventured out to Blackstone Elementary School in the South End, another meal distribution site, in search of work packets and computers for her children — not food.

“I wouldn’t have gotten up so early to come here if I knew that was the case,” said the nurse from Mission Hill who had worked double shifts over the past few days.

Blackstone principal Shammah Daniels said all the computers that the school had on hand were distributed on Monday — a day when Blue and hundreds of the school’s other parents kept their children home, fearing the virus’s spread. Daniels said additional Chromebooks are being configured, and will be available by appointment only.

Daniels said she fears that parents are getting overwhelmed by all the information coming from the schools — via e-mail, phone, and texts. “I don’t think all parents are looking at all of the information,'' she said. "Things are moving so rapidly. ... Parents will have to be patient as things develop.”

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At the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester, a classroom on the first floor had been transformed into a community lunch room by 8:30 am, but only a few families trickled in.

“I’m a single parent, so it’s already a struggle,” said Nadia Ambroise, who was picking up breakfast and lunch with her 5-year-old son, Omar, before she headed into work as a medical assistant. “Any extra benefit for the kids, I’ll definitely take advantage of.”

Omar said it would probably be fun to be out of school, but when he was asked how he would spend all the free time, he replied solemnly, “Learn.” He is working on the alphabet.

At the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, the school principal stood just inside the front doors, surrounded by curriculum packets for every grade.

A parent, Uyvonna Dowdell, came to the Frederick to get curriculum packets and breakfast and lunch for her four children under the age of 13. She had been applying for jobs, but that’s been put on pause because of the coronavirus, so she’s dedicating herself to her kids’ education.

“It’s actually an adventure,” Dowdell said, adding that she is on a global group chat of parents to figure out what to do with her kids each day.

And she was pleased with how BPS had handled the crisis so far.

“Boston Public Schools has really been on it with communication,” Dowdell said. “They communicate with us every night. And they just called me this morning, while I was grocery shopping.”

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Malaki Solo, 12, felt good about the way the school has treated him. On Monday, his teachers gave him a Chromebook; the school has arranged for Internet service for his family; and he said he’s clear on how he’ll get the assignments from his teachers that he needs to finish each day.

But he still had questions. He’s preparing for the state’s standardized test, the MCAS, scheduled in the next few weeks. And he wonders how he will take the exam? (That’s a question no one can answer right now. Waiving the test would likely require state and federal approval.)

His mother promises she’ll stay on top of Malaki’s questions and make sure he does two hours of school work daily during the shutdown. And she’ll be home to do it. The hospital where she works as a lead medical assistant has told her not to come in and to take paid sick leave. His dad may soon be working from home as well.

Despite all the efforts to retain a sense of normalcy — Malaki wore his school uniform for much of the day — he is clearly unsettled by all the abrupt changes.

“I can’t put it into words,” he said. “I just know I don’t feel good about it.”


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons. Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.