COVID-19 meant these schools took free lunch to students. What teachers saw surprised them.

Samantha Hernandez
 
| USA TODAY

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Coronavirus Chronicles: Students struggle to learn with virtual school

Across the country, students are struggling to focus and retain information with online learning, and many feel they are learning less than past years.

Harrison Hill, USA TODAY

First-grade teacher Shiela Garland had long known that 100% of students in Arizona’s Stanfield Elementary School District, where she has taught for 16 years, ate free meals.

Garland did not really know what those numbers meant until this spring, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and schools closed across the United States. Suddenly, she and other Stanfield staff found themselves in masks and gloves, riding up to 150 miles a day on school buses traversing gravel and dirt roads to hand out food and homework packets to children.

Before the pandemic, Garland usually only saw her students in the classroom. Some students’ homes she visited lacked electricity, indoor plumbing or windows, she said. 

“Going out there and actually pulling up in front of the houses, you know, to deliver the food and stuff and seeing the situation these kids are living in — it breaks your heart,” Garland said. 

Halfway across the country, school staff in rural Cobden, Illinois, also were discovering the meaning of poverty firsthand. The district covers about 88 square miles of a community where agriculture is one of the main industries.

“A lot of our staff lives outside of the community and don’t drive the back roads. You really don’t pay attention to those places until you’re walking up,” said Cobden Superintendent Edwin Shoemate. 

Shoemate tells a story about how, early in the pandemic, he and the staff learned that a mother and son were living in an approximately 10-foot-by-10-foot house and got their water from a hose outside. Families like this motivated Shoemate and his staff as they delivered meals each weekday morning during the school year. 

Statistics about poverty and hunger in rural America have been available for years, and many rural schools have taken steps to combat food insecurity with government and locally run programs.

But some teachers say those statistics have taken on new meaning since the pandemic began. In some rural school districts where teachers and administrators volunteered to deliver food to needy families amid the coronavirus outbreak, some educators say they encountered poverty firsthand for the first time, gaining new insight into the everyday challenges and academic barriers facing their students.

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“It’s the first thing that most superintendents at small rural districts wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning and think about. ‘How am I going to get these kids fed today?’” said David Ardrey, executive director of the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools. 

With many rural schools again meeting in person, schools are taking what they learned over the summer and turning those lessons into action — whether that action is smoother food deliveries or making sure students’ most basic needs are filled.

The experience in the spring has also prepared teachers for more possible school closures, as coronavirus cases continue a winter surge across the country.

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Insecure: Children need food during the pandemic

Meeting the needs of children has been difficult during the pandemic. Food insecurity is a big reason why.

As the pandemic hit, more than 17% of mothers said their young children were not getting enough to eat and they didn’t have enough money to buy more food, according to a national survey conducted by the left-leaning Brookings Institution in April. 

Compared with a similar question asked in a Department of Agriculture survey, that figure has increased 460% since 2018, said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at Brookings.

During the initial months of the pandemic, the federal government paid for grocery purchases for some families with children who eat for free at school, so they didn’t have to go to school pick-up sites to get meals.

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In the fall, the special grocery program was extended through September 2021 for children whose school buildings are closed. The coronavirus relief package that passed Congress last month further expanded the program to include all children under the age of 6, along with emergency money for schools and day cares that feed students.

“Given the circumstances and the scale of the need, this is a problem that schools can’t solve,” Bauer said. 

But districts tried when schools closed this spring.

Shoemate, the Cobden superintendent, is no stranger to the stress of feeding students. Still, the school’s teachers couldn’t always relate to what students were going through at home. Before the pandemic, 65% of the district’s approximately 530 students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. A third of the district’s students are Hispanic and two-thirds are white, while 93% of their teachers are white and only 4.5% Hispanic, according to state data.

After school closed this spring to in-house instruction, the Cobden community stepped up to help deliver meals, purchase groceries and donate gift cards as the needs of area families grew, Shoemate said. 

“It’s all these resources and trying to use them wisely, and trying to make sure that you’re taking care of everybody that needs it – knowing in the back of your mind that you’re not doing enough for some kids,” Shoemate said.

Cobden parent Jeannie Gerlach, a bookkeeper at a medical clinic, lives on a tight budget. Since her two kids ate meals at school when class is in session, she did not have money budgeted for extra meals once school went online. Having teachers drop off meals gave her family a boost.

“Those meals mean a lot,” Gerlach said. “It’s more than just the food that they provide. It gives a little bit more normalcy because it’s a staff that’s bringing them.” 

One of those staff members was school counselor April Reiman.

Reiman volunteered, in part, to get an idea of what types of obstacles children in the community were experiencing. She came to the district in 2017.   

Reiman felt it took her about a year to really get to know the community and its residents. 

She and her family do not live in Cobden, in part because of her husband’s long commute to work. Her own commute is 25 minutes one-way.

She described Cobden as a small community that prioritizes its school and students. 

“I thought I had a pretty good handle until I rode the buses,” Reiman said. “It was very eye-opening, and it was something that, man, I think all of our teachers need just to do.”

The school wasn’t able to bus meals to students over the summer, instead offering a hot lunch on campus and in a nearby town. But the effort resumed when school started up virtually in the fall.

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Then, when school returned for four days a week midway through the fall semester, only about 70% of the district’s students came back for in-person learning. And the district briefly put classes online for all students around Thanksgiving when COVID-19 cases increased.  

So taking meals to students has continued. An aide drives the school van four days a week to drop off remote students’ lunches. And on Wednesdays, when all students are learning from home, the district runs a bus route to deliver meals to students who signed up.

Commuting affects teachers’ knowledge of district

For the teachers, taking meals around on school buses provided an unexpected and often heartbreaking benefit to the pandemic: knowing their communities better. 

“It shows commitment and understanding of the mission that everyone is involved and ready to serve,” said Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, of the importance of teachers getting to know and living in their school communities.

At Stanfield, about 25% of the district’s 72 staff members live in the community, said Superintendent Melissa Sadorf.

The K-8 district includes parts of the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation.  

“The rest do commute,” Sadorf wrote in an email. “That definitely plays into not knowing all of the community in an in-depth way.” 

Sixty-five percent of the families in the district are Hispanic, Sadorf said. The next highest demographic is Native American at 20%. The teaching staff is 28% Hispanic, 12% Native American, 28% white, 16% Black and 16% Asian.

Many of the commuting teachers volunteered to deliver food over the district’s approximately 600 square miles beginning in mid-March. Due to the high number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, all students at the school eat for free. 

Before mid-March, the school was feeding 375 students, Sadorf said. After the school closed, the number rose to about 425 area children daily. 

“I didn’t realize the depth and the breadth of need in terms of food until we started this program and started seeing the numbers of people that were showing up to get food,” Sadorf said. “If we hadn’t stepped in … there are a lot of people that would have been hungry, a lot of kids that would have gone hungry.”

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This fall, the district offered meals for pickup for students who are learning online. Around 75 children also had meals and a place to learn at school early in the school year, before face-to-face learning began.

Long bus routes, crowded homes for some children

People who have lived in the area for much of their lives, like Garland, were not aware of how some of their neighbors were living. 

Garland, who is one of seven children, was born in southern California. When she was 3, her parents moved the family to Stanfield. She attended Stanfield from kindergarten through eighth grade. 

Both of her parents took jobs with the Stanfield School District; her father worked in the transportation department and her mother worked as a teacher’s aide. Neither of her parents graduated high school, but both were inspired to get their GEDs.

Even though her parents drove the school bus at one point, Garland never saw the reservation before this spring. 

The length of some of the bus routes surprised her. 

“That made you stop and realize that little kids, especially the small ones, would have to get up so early in the morning to be able to catch the bus to be able to get to school,” Garland said. 

It became clear why some of her Native American students do not stay late for tutoring or came to school with homework not done.

“If they stay till 5 o’clock for our innovation programs and it … might be 6, 7 o’clock before they got home,” Garland said. 

Another area of the district that stuck with her was Hidden Valley Estates, a mobile home park.

Multiple families shared a single trailer, making it difficult for students to have quiet space to do homework or have uninterrupted sleep, Garland said. 

Stanfield second-grade teacher Stephonie Martin was another teacher riding the buses out to the Tohono O’odham Nation during the school year. 

Martin, with her three daughters, relocated from Jamaica three years ago to teach at the school. She commutes from outside the district.

This spring was the first time she had seen how some of her students were living. 

“It was a little overwhelming on the first day because I felt guilty in some ways in terms of my expectations,” Martin said.

Martin knows children’s struggles at home carry into the classroom. Needs like food must be addressed for students to be able to focus on their studies.   

“Right now, I feel like there’s so much more that I need to do for my students to help (them) to want to succeed, to help them to know that my classroom is a safe space that they can be themselves and be kids more than anything else,” Martin said. 

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“We’ve not made it our priority to be aware,” Martin said of the larger community. She hopes the pandemic changes that. 

Months later, Martin says her colleagues are stepping up.

In her classroom, Martin has stocked warm clothing for her 20 students. In the past, she only kept four jackets for kids to use on cold days.

Sadorf says she plans to continue using bus rides as part of the staff’s professional development, and she plans to continue to invite tribal elders to school to help educate staff about Tohono O’odham culture. 

For Martin, the rides made a lasting difference. “I understand so much more my role as a teacher in this community,” she said.

Reporting for this article was supported by a Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University’s Journalism School.

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