In the predawn light Tuesday morning, dozens of bus drivers, school administrators and volunteers converged on the Evergreen Public Schools bus barn to load up for the day.
But in the midst of school cancellations due to the coronavirus, it isn’t students hitting the road. It’s thousands of packets of cereal, milk and fixings for handheld pizzas to keep children fed while cafeterias can’t.
Clark County’s largest school district is delivering food to students by bus, stopping at every elementary school bus stop at its normal time and offering meals to anyone who is waiting.
The closing of schools is difficult for all families, particularly those low-income families who may rely on school cafeterias for a meal or two a day. Of Evergreen Public Schools’ 24,972 students, 51.3 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price meals.
“We have families relying on the meals,” district spokeswoman Gail Spolar said. “Our community is going to need things.”
For this service, however, there’s no requirement that students receive free meals while at school to take a sack meal. The program also isn’t restricted to elementary school students, or Evergreen students at all.
The way the district sees it, if there are kids younger than 18 in the house, they can have a meal. If they have siblings or other children in the house, they can have a couple to take with them. No questions asked.
“We need to get the community fed,” said Jen Misfeldt, nutrition services director for the district.
‘Every student gets a meal’
For Tanisha Cardiel, who has been driving a school bus for Evergreen Public Schools for seven years, the day had another advantage: she had a chance to see some of her students.
“We have this bond,” she said, warming up her bus before setting off on her route, which serves Harmony Elementary School, Pacific Middle School and Union High School.
Added Cardiel: “You get to know them.”
There are a few personal touches on Bus 181, which Cardiel has been driving for three years.
Her elementary school students have name tags for their assigned seats. There’s also one high school boy’s name tag above a seat — she doesn’t require older students to stick to one seat, but this one wanted a name tag.
A glittery bottle of hand sanitizer hangs from her purse. That’s a must-have, even in the best of times, she said.
“I knew it was coming,” Cardiel said of the closures. “You do what you’ve got to do.”
Cardiel’s radio came on, with dispatchers instructing those on the road on schedules, routes and one all important point: “Every student gets a meal.”
‘Part of history’
Cameron Antonietti, 6, squealed as the bus doors opened, scrambling up with his sister, 8-year-old Blake, to grab his meals.
Mom Iris Antonietti watched from the sidewalk in the Birchwood Meadows development off of 162nd Avenue, smiling as her pajama-clad son eagerly peered into a bag containing cereal and snacks. The closures have been hard on her, too. She’s a substitute teacher in the school district, and therefore is missing work. But at the same time, she said, her kids are witnessing something big.
“It’s like we’re a part of history,” Antonietti said.
After driving her route, Cardiel pulled up to Harmony Elementary School to serve any families who missed the bus and were heading directly to the school for a meal. She served 20 of the 60 meals on her bus. There’s a lot to work out as districts start serving meals, including how much everyone needs. The district ended up giving out 5,000 meals of the 8,000 breakfasts, lunches and milk packages prepared. Most unclaimed meals can be used a second day.
Britney Modoc and her 7-year-old son, Dominic, were among those who headed to Harmony to grab a meal.
“It’s a good way to take advantage of food that’s not going to waste,” Modoc said.
Their family has adjusted to the closures well, she said. She’s printed off worksheets and is working with her son to keep him sharp. He’s a numbers guy, she said. He’s too young to have a concept of how long six weeks is, she said, so on Friday they counted down the days until April 27: 44.
It’s a long time, but Modoc is staying optimistic.
“This will all be better soon,” she said.