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From left, McKinley High food technician Clara Allen, Brownsfield Elementary kitchen technician Rondishe Dotson, East Baton Rouge Parish Schools Child Nutrition Program Area Supervisor/Summer Meals Coordinator Felecia Barnes, Capitol Middle School kitchen technicians Temica Perkins and Patrice Pittman, and Capitol Middle School food technician Felicia Webster keep bags of lunches and breaksfast coming at an EBR Schools drive-through, Grab-N-Go School Meal site at Capitol Middle, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, prompted by the school closures because of the novel coronavirus threat.

Ascension, Livingston, St. Helena and St. James school districts have suspended “Grab & Go” food service amid the escalation of the coronavirus outbreak in Louisiana but they are offering different reasons for the decision.

All four districts announced their decisions Sunday afternoon. Leaders of three of the four districts cited the governor’s “shelter in place” order issued at 2 p.m Sunday and the uncertainty it creates. Late Sunday, East Feliciana Parish schools, as well Impact Charter School in Baker announced they were suspending student meals.

Christina Stephens, spokeswoman for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said it's a big misunderstanding: "K-12 schools, public and private, are a central function that will continue to operate."

St. Helena and St. James parishes, however, offered another reason for canceling food service: Both districts learned this weekend they each have an employee who has tested positive for COVID-19.

“As a result, we have no choice but to suspend all planned meal distribution for students,” St. James Parish school leaders announced via Facebook. “This is very unfortunate; however, we cannot take any chances. The safety of our students and employees must remain our top priority."

St. Helena Parish Superintendent Kelli Joseph blamed the combination of having an employee test positive and the governor’s order.

“We are operating with an abundance of caution,” Joseph said. “We want to service our students. But, we also have to consider the safety and well-being of our cooks, bus drivers, janitors, and other staff, in addition to their families.”

Ascension, Livingston and St. James opened up five, 14 and five school meal sites, respectively, last week after Gov John Bel Edwards ordered all public schools in Louisiana to stay closed until April 13. St. James also has been delivering meals via school bus. St. Helena is exclusively delivering meals. All are feeding children 18 years and younger while school is out.

In addition to suspending food service, Livingston Parish schools are closing all school facilities and no longer allowing employees to report to work, unless notified by Superintendent Joe Murphy. In a statement, Murphy pointed exclusively to the governor’s “shelter in place” order.

“While we are truly disheartened by the suspension of services at this time, we also have a responsibility to keep the citizens of our parish and our employees safe during this crisis. If further guidance and clarification is given regarding meal service, which allows for the continuation, we will resume our meal program at that time,” Murphy said.

Ascension Parish David Alexander, in his own statement, said Ascension is discontinuing the student meal program due to the governor's order, saying it’s prompting the district to “reassess the safety of staff, logistics, and to determine where we might overcome areas that are perceived as compromising (government) guidelines.”

A spokeswoman for Livingston Parish said the school district is not aware of any its employees testing positive. Alexander, in his statement, made clear he’s not going to reveal that information if it were true, saying doing so would violate federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA.

In his order, which takes effect at 5 p.m. Monday, Gov. Edwards ordered non-essential businesses to close and their workers to go home to avoid spreading the virus. Employees considered essential, who can still go to work, are health care workers, staffers in groceries, pharmacies, take-out restaurants and banks. 

Some school leaders expressed confusion Sunday about whether school meal program workers are also essential.

Stephens said the confusion arose during a conference call Sunday afternoon with school superintendents led by Mark Cooper, the governor's chief of staff. Stephens said worried superintendents were reassured repeatedly that "(serving student meals) is a central function of the government, and it would be allowed under the order."

She said state officials plan to continue talking to superintendents over the next day to allay their concerns.

Acting State Schools Superintendent Beth Scioneaux sent a letter late Sunday urging superintendents and other meal providers to continue serving children through at least Friday, saying the state has heard their concerns and is working with the National Guard’s project management team "to develop multiple, unique, alternate solutions for meal delivery moving forward."

Not every district came away from Sunday's conference call thinking they had to cancel school meals.

“We’re going to push forward this week,” said Taylor Gast, a spokeswoman for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

East Baton Rouge, however, is taking other steps, including closing all school buildings completely, except those used for school meals and other continuing services, Gast said.

Tangipahoa Parish schools also are continuing with student meals for the time being.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board is reacting in other ways. It moved up to 10 a.m. Monday a meeting to give Superintendent Warren Drake emergency powers during the coronavirus crisis, a move many other Louisiana school districts have already taken.

Gast said she's not aware of any East Baton Rouge school employees testing positive for COVID-19.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.