School bus drivers follow a well-established routine, following the same route in bringing kids to and from school each day. COVID-19 has disrupted that pattern, as it has so much of everyday life. The buses are back in business now, but in a much different capacity.
This past month public schools were tasked with delivering meals to suddenly homebound students, and that didn’t leave much time for schools to come up with a plan and execute it. Yet most did, and they have been rewarded with displays of gratitude.
“The drivers have been coming back just about every day with some kind of note of thanks from families that they’re leaving,” said Scott Dahlin, transportation supervisor for Alexandria Public Schools. “They’re getting these notes back and hanging them up in the break room. It is quite touching.”
Along with the thank-you sentiments comes some levity. One family leaves a note with a daily joke for the school staffers. Monday's offering: “What did one plate say to the other plate? Lunch is on me!”
Turning on a dime
Turning the buses into a form of Meals on Wheels required quick action on the part of the Alexandria district, and its transportation and food service staff. It wasn’t a matter of willpower, but of incorporating two departments with an entirely new concept and putting it into practice.
“It’s been a nice partnership with the different departments. We normally don’t get to work together so closely,” Dahlin said.
Janeen Peterson, director of Food and Nutrition Services with the Alexandria district, said the partnership has changed the way her staff thinks.
“It’s been a group effort, and it’s really brought our team together,” she said. “Honestly, it has been a very proud moment of watching people solve a problem and do the best thing for kids. They’ve just been coming up with all kinds of ideas. We’ve worked together to problem-solve this.”
Problem No. 1 was devising a plan to get meals to families that wanted them in a timely manner. Complicating it all was adding high school students who normally don’t ride buses into the picture, and subtracting others who were bus riders but did not sign up for meal delivery. Plus, the state Department of Education has set up the program for anyone 18 years of age and younger, Peterson said.
“It was like a whole new school startup from scratch,” Dahlin said. “Instead of having two months, we probably had about four or five days to put all the routes together.”
A computerized routing system was a huge help in establishing 22 routes, compared to more than twice that when the buses are filled with kids. However, the list of around 1,700 students the district is delivering meals to is being consistently adjusted.
“Every day we’re getting more and more families signing up. We added about 20 families yesterday,” Peterson said.
It’s not just meals, either. The buses – two drivers and a food service employee go out by 10 a.m. and arrive back at school by 1 p.m. – have delivered other items, like Chromebooks and classroom materials to students without internet access, Dahlin said.
But the main part of this has been a lunch for that day and a breakfast for the following morning, and they are even accommodating the special diet requirements of some students. It’s all cold meals thus far, and recipients have two hours to eat or refrigerate meals. Lunch is often a sandwich and chips, fresh fruit and fresh vegetables, and milk. Breakfast might be fruit, milk, cereal, muffins or granola bars.
“We’re basically supplying two-thirds of their regular meals, and following USDA guidelines to make sure they’re getting balanced and nutritious meals,” Peterson said.
Not all school districts are making daily meal deliveries, she said. Some are sending out a week’s worth of meals at a time.
“We decided against that because we wanted two things to happen. We wanted the meals to be as fresh as they could be, and we also want something every day for our students who are homebound and isolated to look forward to, that their bus driver and lunch lady shows up to their house every day.”
That means the Food and Nutrition Services staff of around 50 is preparing about 3,600 meals a day, including meals for kids who are receiving child care services through the schools.
Not all meals are delivered. Some families prefer to drive up to Woodland Elementary School during its pickup hours of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday-Friday.
“They can choose. Most people are wanting it delivered,” Peterson said. Her staff can handle current levels, but she said there might come a time more families will be encouraged to pick up meals.
“We have all hands on deck. We need every single one of our team members to do this. They are doing a phenomenal job,” Peterson said. “If we can deliver to students, we’re happy to do it.”
Dahlin has been similarly impressed by how his drivers have responded.
“I was very impressed with my staff and their dedication,” he said. “The drivers are enjoying getting out and helping the kids.”
That feeling goes both ways. Kids have been leaving cards out for the school personnel. (Some were left on coolers that were put at the end of long driveways to hold the meals. Unfortunately, at first some coolers were mistaken by people as free items left at the side of the road and were taken. Dahlin issued a reminder that those coolers are there for another purpose.)
Families have also been putting homemade posters in windows. Some kids are seen waiting through the front windows and waving. Some have even given flowers.
“The parents of this community have been so supportive and so sweet. It touches your heart that people care so much. It’s really amazing,” Peterson said. “It restores your faith in humanity.”