The cafeteria is the happiest place at David T. Denny International Middle School, said Doree Fazio-Young. She’s determined not to let a pandemic change that.

As she handed out more than 60 free meals at the West Seattle school’s entrance on Tuesday, the first day of state’s mandated six-week closure of all Washington schools to slow the spread of novel coronavirus, she and her colleague sported Leprechaun top hats for St. Patrick’s Day.

She tried to stay positive in the face of an inescapable reality: At a time of deep uncertainty for 1.1 million public school students in the state, nearly half of whom rely on the resources their schools provide to stay afloat, a consistent place to get free food is critical. Seattle Public Schools and dozens more school districts in Washington are stepping up to provide a pandemic-proof version of this service at a select number of school sites while they’re closed.

“We’ve got a lot of kids who are homeless and kids who get their only meals here,” said Fazio-Young, who manages the school’s kitchen and has worked at Denny for nearly three decades. “I’ve been through earthquakes, fires, meningococcal scares — I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It’s a new type of lunchtime, and one of the only gestures of normalcy schools can offer at time when issues like child care or academics are largely unsettled in many places.

At Denny, Irish music played as kids and parents browsed through the tables stacked with bagged lunches, fresh produce, assignments from teachers and free books.

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“It’s like prepping for a big party every day,” said Fazio-Young.

In the last week, kitchen staff in schools have repurposed their inventories and prepped thousands of meals that are easy to grab and go: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Caesar salad kits and microwaveable breakfast items, to name a few. To ensure social distancing, dining in is not allowed.

Doree Fazio-Young has worked at Denny International Middle School for 29 years, serving breakfast and lunch every day – and she’ll continue to do so while schools are closed for coronavirus. (Ramon Dompor & Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)

In Seattle, food is available for pick up at more than two dozen schools. The district picked them based on how accessible each location was, and how many students participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program in each building. By Monday, nutrition services staff had prepped 15,000 meals and distributed about 2,000.

“For me, it was like — action,” said Aaron Smith, SPS’ food-services director, who said he worked over the weekend to ensure the operation went off smoothly.

Federal Way, Issaquah and Tacoma also started their services this week. Some districts, like Northshore, have gotten more sophisticated with their delivery methods: they’re driving food directly to families and allowing preorders with a day’s notice.

At Denny, the lunch site doubles as a way to provide kids with some ways to continue learning at home. On a table next to the food, there were handoff notes from teachers, math and literacy work sheets, and instructions on how to access assignments online.

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“This is really convenient for me,” said Allison Kent, a mother and SPS instructional assistant who showed up to Denny on Tuesday. She came to pick up academic materials for her kids, who she’s been trying to keep on a learning schedule while school is out. Her daughter, Sammy, hugged one of the food bags.

The biggest challenge so far, according to Smith, has been predicting how many people will show up to get meals. During the school year, students from lower-income families qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. This closure, though, the state has said schools should make food available to all, and SPS promised not to turn any student away.

“I had this thought of, ‘What if 100,000 people show up?'”

Another challenge for all districts: Getting the word out about resources. The number of meals taken in some places is far less than the number of students who are in poverty. But time has improved the turnout. After only getting a couple hundred orders a day last week, Northshore saw the number climb to 1,000 on Monday — about a third of the total number of kids living in poverty at the 24,000-student district.

At the drive-thru lunch station for Chief Sealth High School, which shares a building with Denny Middle, employees — also dressed in green — said they handed out double the number of meals, about 70, compared to Monday.

Getting word of the district’s closure last week was scary for Fazio-Young, but also sad. She’d celebrated the end of each decade of her life at the school, and the closure happened just as she turned 60. Normally, they’d have a “big party,” she said, glancing back at barren, chair-less cafeteria behind her.

Another thing she’s bummed about: Closing also means there’s no point in decorating the kitchen area, where she normally interacts with kids, for every holiday. On Wednesday, the green string lights and four-leaf clovers hanging from the ceiling of the school’s dim and empty kitchen were due to come down.

Just like the students, she’d come to rely on lunchtime too.

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