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When Virus Disrupted This School Partnership, They Turned To Duct Tape

McPIE Director Amy Daniels shows students' duct-tape creations as they go through the meal line.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced public schools across America to close, each had to find its own way to quickly reinvent itself.

McClintock Middle School in southeast Charlotte faces some big challenges, and has a powerhouse partner helping out.

It's a large school – about 1,200 students – and most students come from low-income homes. It’s also a magnet school, which means its students are scattered over a wider area than a school that serves a defined zone.

When schools closed, Principal Mark McHugh and his staff had to connect quickly with all of them, including families who were already working hard to make ends meet as the bottom fell out of the economy.

"I think the challenges are the same we face at any time with changing numbers or families in transition," McHugh said. "Obviously right now’s a little bit more difficult … families worried about jobs, and losing jobs, and trying to figure out groceries and all the necessities."

A McClintock staffer delivers meals in a drive-through line where McPIE challenge packets are also available.

When school was in session, the federal government provided free breakfast and lunch to all McClintock students. When the cafeteria closed, the school became a grab-and-go meal site, where families can pick up a hot lunch and a bagged breakfast for the next day.

And Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had already provided take-home Chromebooks for all students at McClintock.

"Connectivity’s an issue, obviously," McHugh said. "We know we have families that don’t have stable WiFi, or having to use shared WiFi, or go to community WiFi spots."

McClintock also has a remarkable partnership with Christ Lutheran Church that dates back to 2007. The church has a $400,000 annual budget and a staff of five assigned to McPIE – that’s short for McClintock Partners In Education.

McPIE’s signature event is Tuesday "Family Night," where about 100 volunteers and 300 students and family members converge for a meal and enrichment activities.

"When we got canceled, we started asking the school what we could do," said McPIE Director Amy Daniels.

Many of the Family Night activities were inspired by the STEAM magnet theme – science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The students couldn’t gather, but a lot of them were driving through with their parents for meals.

"So because it’s a pickup site, it was like, OK, then we could do something to engage these families and stay connected with them other than food," Daniels said.

The second week of closed schools, McPIE launched the "Duct Tape Challenge": What can you make with a roll of tape?

The first McPIE challenge.

"We ordered a bunch of rolls of duct tape," Daniels said. "We made a sticker that could go on it to explain the rules, what they were supposed to do and how to post their creations so we could see them."

These are middle-schoolers, so the directions included, in all caps, “DO NOT WRAP YOUR BODY OR ANYONE ELSE'S BODY IN THE DUCT TAPE.”

Photos of duct tape wallets, purses and vases started popping up on social media.

"The coolest I have seen is a girl that made, it looks like a tricycle with a basket full of flowers," Daniels said.

The third week of closing, Daniels was standing at the meal pick-up line with a new challenge: A pack of paper with origami instructions.

One parent drove up and said he wasn’t getting a meal – just this week’s challenge for his kid. Some students brought their duct tape creations with them, showing them off from a safe distance while staying in the car.

Seventh-grader Denaya Shepard said she had fun making purses, and the project was a nice break from online schoolwork.

Amy Daniels delivers origami packets to a family.

"It’s tiring, like waking up early and then getting on a class but having like multiple classes," she said. "So throughout the day you’re just working and working and working. You never really get a break."

Seventh-grader Cashmine Morgan brought an intricately patterned duct tape lily pad, complete with a blossom. She says the project was better than chatting with friends and watching YouTube videos on her phone.

Cashmine says getting out of school isn’t really much fun -- "kinda sad that I can’t see my friends, and all the teachers I normally hug in the morning. So it’s kinda like heartbreaking."

Her sister Tazmine says she kind of likes working from home, but she hopes that after May 15 – the current end date for a state-mandated closing -- she can reunite with her friends and teachers.

Principal McHugh can’t be sure whether that will happen. He says the hardest thing about these trying times is accepting that so much remains unknown.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.