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In rural America, teachers bringing free lunch to kids amid COVID-19 crisis see poverty they face

From Arizona to Cobden in downstate Illinois, the coronavirus pandemic is forcing school employees to face up to the financial hardships many students face.

Rose Gamez (left), a paraprofessional with the Stanfield school district, and kindergarten teacher Maria Garcia helped feed children in their Arizona district over the summer.
Rose Gamez (left), a paraprofessional with the Stanfield school district, and kindergarten teacher Maria Garcia helped feed children in their Arizona district over the summer.
Melissa Sadorf

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.

But Garland didn’t fully get what those numbers meant until last spring, when the coronavirus pandemic hit and schools closed across the United States. Suddenly, she and other Stanfield staff members 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 saw her students only in the classroom. Some of the students’ homes she visited lacked electricity, indoor plumbing or windows.

“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 says.

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,” Cobden schools Supt. Edwin Shoemate says. “You really don’t pay attention to those places until you’re walking up.”

Shoemate says early in the pandemic he and his staff learned that a mother and son were living in an approximately 10-foot-by-10-foot house and getting 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.

In some rural school districts where teachers and administrators volunteered to deliver food to needy families amid the coronavirus outbreak, educators say they encountered poverty up close for the first time, gaining insight into the everyday challenges their students face.

“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?’ ” says David Ardrey, executive director of the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools.

Meeting the needs of children has been difficult during the pandemic. Food insecurity is a big reason. As the pandemic hit, more than 17% of mothers said their children weren’t getting enough to eat and that they didn’t have enough money to buy more food, according to a national survey by the Brookings Institution in April.

Compared with a similar question asked in a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, that figure has risen 460% since 2018, according to Lauren Bauer, a Brookings fellow.

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

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 expanded the program to include all children under 6, along with emergency money for schools and day care centers that feed students.

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

In Cobden, Shoemate says 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; 93% of their teachers are white, and only 4.5% are Hispanic, according to state data.

After school closed to in-class instruction last spring, the community stepped up to help deliver meals, buy groceries and donate gift cards as families ‘ needs grew, Shoemate says.

Cobden parent Jeannie Gerlach, a bookkeeper for a medical clinic, lives on a tight budget. Because her two kids ate meals at school when class is in session, she says she didn’t have money budgeted for extra meals once school went online. So having teachers drop off meals gave her family a boost.

“Those meals mean a lot,” Gerlach says. “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.”

School counselor April Reiman says she volunteered partly to get an idea of what types of obstacles children in the community face. Reiman, who came to the district in 2017, says it took her about a year to really get to know the community. She and her family don’t live in Cobden in part because of her husband’s long commute to work. Her own commute is 25 minutes one way.

“I thought I had a pretty good handle until I rode the buses,” Reiman says of Cobden. “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. The effort resumed when school started virtually in the fall.

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

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

At Stanfield, about 25% of the Arizona district’s 72 staff members live in the community, according to Supt. Melissa Sadorf, whose K-8 district includes parts of the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation.

“The rest do commute,” Sadorf says. “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. 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 American.

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

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

“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 says. “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.”

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

Staff members and students in Arizona’s Stanfield school district have made frequent use of outdoor spaces during the pandemic. Here, in November, a third-grade class had a snack and learning time outside.
Staff members and students in Arizona’s Stanfield school district have made frequent use of outdoor spaces during the pandemic. Here, in November, a third-grade class had a snack and learning time outside.
Melissa Sadorf

People who have lived in the area for much of their lives, like Garland, weren’t 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 in the transportation department and her mother as a teacher’s aide. Neither graduated from 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 till last spring. And 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 says.

It became clear why some of her Native American students didn’t 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 says.

Another part of the district that stuck with her was a mobile home park where multiple families shared a single trailer, making it hard for find quiet space to do homework or have uninterrupted sleep, Garland says.

Stanfield second-grade teacher Stephonie Martin was another teacher riding the buses out to the Tohono O’odham Nation during the school year. Martin moved with her three daughters from Jamaica three years ago to teach at the school. She commutes from outside the district.

Last spring was the first time she saw how some of her students were living.

In her classroom, Martin has stocked warm clothing for her 20 students. In the past, she kept only 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.

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

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

Read more at usatoday.com