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Rutherford County Schools receive COVID-19 assistance from a local business: Facebook

In 2012, a Facebook Data Center arrived in Forest City, North Carolina, a town in Rutherford County. Along with the center came grant opportunities for regional nonprofit organizations and schools through Facebook’s Community Action Grant program.

Last fall, it was announced that Rutherford County Schools benefited from that grant program to the tune of $300,000. The money was given to expand the district’s STEAM initiative. They received an additional $100,000 from Facebook soon after, making the funding total prior to the COVID-19 pandemic $450,000.

Serving more than 7,800 students, the school system has plans to create STEAM and robotics labs at each of its 18 schools over the course of a couple of years. The labs are designed for collaborative learning. They include makerspace tools, functional furniture, and storage equipment designed for hands-on activities.

The district had planned on installing one lab per month for the foreseeable future, and started down that path last month, when COVID-19 derailed the schedule. As soon as the announcement was made that school would close, Ritchie Garland, director of marketing and community relations for Rutherford County Schools, said Facebook reached out and asked what they could do to help. 

Garland has worked closely with Katie Comer, a community development manager at Facebook, and says the company created an “unbelievable partnership” from the beginning. Garland and the leadership team at Rutherford County Schools quickly put their heads together — virtually — and came up with a laundry list of things for which they may need assistance.

First, they knew they needed to upgrade their outdoor Wi-Fi units so that parents could drive students to school and connect to the internet for online instruction. Facebook granted $61,000 for the installation and materials.

Brad Teague, chief operating officer for Rutherford County Schools, knew the backpack food program was suffering as many church services were canceled, and donations come from congregations. The estimated cost for one week of the backpack program service is about $5,300.

Rutherford County Schools decided to ask for two weeks worth of funding for the program to sustain it if what they had saved overtime were to dry up. Comer responded and said, “Let’s make it 10 weeks.” Rutherford County Schools received an additional $53,000 to ensure food for the backpack program.

The school district is distributing between 8,000 to 9,000 meals per day, rain or shine, so they requested additional funding to outfit the staff with gear and tents to keep curbside pick-up running smoothly. Add in funding for printing remote learning packets, and that totals another $40,000.

Facebook has approved it all, and in total has granted Rutherford County Schools with an additional $154,000 for COVID-19 efforts. 

Curbside meal pick up in Rutherford County School during COVID-19. Courtesy of Rutherford County Schools

“We could not ask for more than what they do for our system, it’s just absolutely tremendous the partnership that we have with Facebook,” says Garland. “As the years have gone on, they’ve really stepped up their support of our school system.”

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.