District food program keeps kids connected as Gov. Brown extends deadline to closure April 28

Siuslaw School District staff and volunteers began serving brown-bag meals from to area families via the school bus route on Monday as the district preps for a two-week minimum closure. The district also prepared lesson plans for students to work on at home.

Siuslaw School district launches mobile food, schoolwork program in light of shifting coronavirus landscape

March 18, 2020 — “We are definitely through the looking glass, in terms of anything I’ve ever dealt with in my career. I’d dare say it’s the same for all of you as well,” Siuslaw Elementary Principal Mike Harklerode told volunteer staff of the Siuslaw School District on Monday morning.

They had gathered to help prepare and deliver hundreds of meals for children across the region, as well as begin lesson plans for students to keep them engaged and attempt to find out the community’s needs.

“Think about the kids,” Harklerode said. “Think about their home lives. Think about those kids you worry about every weekend when you send them home, and now that’s where they are for the foreseeable future. We need to have something that keeps them connected to school, something that keeps them connected to learning and keeps them healthy.”

The group was split into two, the first being classified employees who were tasked with riding along on Siuslaw School District buses to hand meals out to children — all children, no matter if they are enrolled at the district or not.

“The school board is committed to feeding the students in the community,” District Superintendent Andrew Grzeskowiak told the Siuslaw News. “As long as we see the whites of a kids eyes they will get a meal bag.”

The meals were delivered at bus stop points throughout the district’s normal bus routes, with volunteers handing out the brown sacks from the back of the bus. There were two runs on Monday, a morning one dedicated solely to breakfast, and a second run that had lunch and breakfast included. Schedules for the deliveries can be found on the district website, siuslaw.k12.or.us.

The district gave out more than 600 meals in total on Monday. It began slowly, with only 125 breakfasts handed out in the morning. But by afternoon, the number had grown to 250 lunches and additional breakfasts, totaling 625 meals for the day.

It’s possible that the need for meals will grow rapidly.

Just moments after the last lunch sack was handed out, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced new social distancing policies as a response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

The policies included shutting down dine-in services at restaurants and limiting crowds to 25 people or less.

The governor’s mandates forced multiple local businesses to put staff on furlough, or even close down entirely, leaving many in the region food insecure. School food delivery programs could become vital to keeping the region’s economy afloat as the true effects of the COVID-19 become known.

“While it is not a direct goal to feed adults, if the people doing distribution come across someone in need and we have the supply, they won’t be turned away,” Grzeskowiak said. “That meal won’t be reimbursable, but we will be helping someone that is taking care of one of the students that is caught up in the closure.”

Flexibility is the key word for the district, as things have changed drastically since Brown announced the closure of all schools in Oregon last Thursday.

“Patience and flexibility are greatly appreciated,” Harklerode said, pointing out that staff emails sent out to organize the venture were sometimes contradicted in minutes by new information.

“This has been developing so quickly over this weekend, in terms of who’s coming in, whose not, this is going to be complicated,” Harklerode said.

One of the main goals of the district is triaging needs in the community. This will be done through personal phone calls by teachers volunteering their time, or through surveys sent out with the meals.

“We’re looking for what [internet] connectivity is at home,” Harklerode told staff. “Are they going to need a Chromebook? Another question is, ‘Are there other resources that you need?’ That’s not a well worded question, but we wanted to leave it open. That’s a conversation between teachers and families. ‘Hey, I need childcare, I need laundry.’ You know the families that have those connections, so work those connections to find out how we can support them.”

Harklerode stressed that it is not a promise of support. With district resources in limited supply, it will be unable to organize or provide all the services in the community.

One example would be childcare. While the district is able to provide services for district staff and first responders, social distancing policies and staff shortages due to illness prevent the district from having too many students in the buildings. Therefore, the onus will be on other organizations or create daycare possibilities for the majority of children in the region.

But to make such connections, the community must first assess the needs of parents and children in the community, which is a goal of the district.

Homework is a secondary objective for the district over the next two weeks.

“Make no mistake, instructional integrity is not a primary concern for me,” Harklerode told staff on Monday. “Keeping kids engaged in learning, giving parents a break and keeping them connected with what we’re doing is of paramount importance.”

This week, the district will focus on getting out assignments that are broad in nature.

“What I really want is a common kindergarten packet, a common first-, second-, third-grade packet. Not something specifically for your students,” Harklerode said. “Just something for a two-week period that kids can work on to stay engaged. After that, we can do everything else online.”

As to what will occur after the two weeks, the district is still evaluating, a difficult circumstance considering how rapidly the information is changing.

Just moments before deadline, Gov. Brown released an executive order extending school closures to a total of six weeks, ending on April 28. 

"Districts are to provide learning supports and supplemental services to students and families during the closure period, including meals and child care for for essential healthcare professional and first responders," the order read. "School districts may call on public school educators and employees to deliver limited learning and support services. Each district will pay all their regular employees during the closure."

The executive order ended with Gov. Brown stating, "I do not take the decision to extend school closures lightly. This will have real impacts on Oregon's students, parents and educators. But we must act now to flatten the curve and slow the rate of COVID-19 transmission in Oregon, otherwise we face a higher strain on our medical system and greater loss of life to this disease."

Exactly how much strain on the medical system the disease will take is unknown. Also minutes before deadline, Lane County announced that first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Eugene/Springfield area, a 69-year-old man in the Eugene/Springfield area who is medically stable. The county states that “this case is thought to be an example of community transmission.” The county is currently identifying the patient’s contacts.

How the individual contracted the virus, and how many people came in contact with the patient since March 1 when they began exhibiting symptoms, is also unknown.

It’s these types of unknowns and rapid changes that leave a host of near-future uncertainties regarding how school districts will respond in the coming weeks.

“You talk about a spider web of possibilities. We don’t know what thread we’re running on right now,” Grzeskowiak said.

“Here’s what I do know — we have a highly professional, highly dedicated workforce in this district,” Harklerode told staff on Monday. “I know that if we put our mental muscle to work, we will find creative ways to fill the needs kids have. I have full faith in the professionalism and the commitment of the people of this district.”

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