Students at School District 27J in Brighton, Colo., and Pueblo City Schools in Pueblo, Colo., returned to a shorter school year this fall. Both districts have switched to a four-day school week in an attempt to cut costs and help attract and retain teachers.
While the switch could have a positive outcome for the districts, the nutrition teams are facing challenges such as staffing, a potentially off-kilter commodities supply and concern over how to provide food to students on the extra day.
On Monday when school is not in session, School District 27J offers daycare at most of its elementary schools, and lunch is served at those locations. Two of the daycare sites offer free meals through the community eligibility provision, while the rest serve a la carte items.
As of now, it has no plans to offer foodservice for middle and high school students on Monday. The district’s four charter schools have remained on a traditional five-day schedule.
District 27J began prepping for the change in early 2018. Keeping the line of communication open between school administrators and the nutrition team has been essential to making the transition go as smoothly as possible, says Tony Jorstad, nutrition services director.
“I think communication is important with your staff,” he says, adding that administration met with employees before the district made the official announcement to talk about the change. “It gave [employees] the opportunity to learn about the four-day schedule and why they were doing it.”
During these meetings, employees could also request to take on extra hours.
“For those that want to work, we put them in the top of our list for substitutes,” Jorstad says.
Difficulties aside, Jorstad is trying to use the extra day off to the team’s advantage and will hold staff training days on some Mondays.
At Pueblo City Schools, where students who don’t attend one of the district’s five charter schools are attending class Monday through Thursday this year, staff retention is a concern, says Jill Kidd, director of nutrition services.
Because the district is unionized, the nutrition team had to renegotiate their labor contracts, which resulted in about a 6% loss to their salaries.
“We kept some in-service days in to try and lessen the impact, but in the long run, they’re losing some income,” says Kidd, who worries that the salary cut may affect retention rates.
One of the biggest challenges with switching to a shorter school week was figuring out how to make the most of its supply of USDA commodities. Jorstad says that commodities have to be “ordered far in advance of the school year” and that because the district hasn’t run on this schedule before, staff did not have an accurate idea how much of its commodity items they would use.
“Our estimates of what we were going to use were greyer than they normally are,” says Jorstad.
Pueblo City Schools was also met with commodity challenges. “Your commodities are based on prior years’ participation … so we’re taking a commodity entitlement that was based on 171 [days] and spending it in 150, so that took some little changes to the menu,” Kidd says.
Staff reorganized the menu, removing many dishes that included noncommodity ingredients because they wanted to use up their commodities.
To keep kids fed on Fridays, Pueblo City Schools is continuing to partner with local organizations like the Boys & Girls Club to provide meals.
“All of those programs have gotten together and have tried to fill the need for something for students to do on Fridays in the community,” Kidd says. “We will continue our partnership with them to serve their programs.”
In addition to providing regular meal service on Thursdays, staff will also pack lunches in coolers to be delivered to students the following day.
“Our Thursdays will be really busy. We’ll see how that works,” Kidd says. “We may have to staff Fridays a little bit, but the direction from the district was to have no one work on Fridays if at all possible.”
While the transition has not been easy, Kidd is happy that the community has taken action to help fill in the Friday food gap.
“There’s a lot of concern in the community about food on the fifth day. The community has really stepped up to provide programs for kids, which has allowed us to provide these meals,” she says. “I am heartened that that has happened and hopefully that will meet the needs of our students.”