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Upper Valley schools find ways to keep bringing services to students

  • While her father waits in the car, Evie Pilchik, 10, of Lebanon, N.H., picks up class materials from her fourth-grade teacher Melissa Allen through a window at the Mount Lebanon Elementary School in West Lebanon, N.H., on March 19, 2020. School officials said meals and any other materials will be distributed by bus next week. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jody Bunnell, a paraeducator at Enfield Village School, left, and April Guinness, a math teacher at Mascoma Valley Regional High School, look for students or parents coming out of their home to pick up meals on Route 4 in Enfield, N.H., on March 20, 2020, on bus driver Conner Torrey's route near the Enfield/Lebanon border. "You are the face of Mascoma," superintendent Amanda Isabelle told staff before they departed to deliver meals to the students. "You are the calm in the storm. ... You tell them they are missed and we love them all." (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Indian River School custodians Clinton Tilden, left, and Carol Nowell help load 16 school busses with nearly 500 lunches and breakfasts for all of the students in the Mascoma Valley Regional School District in West Canaan, N.H., on March 20, 2020. The meals have been delivered to students since March 17. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Garrett Prince, 18, of Lyme, shares an air hig-five with Lyme School Director of Special Services Miki McGee, left, as Jason Rush, 16, middle, looks on at the school in Lyme, N.H., Wednesday, March 18, 2020. McGee was finishing up a shift distributing school materials to parents outside the school as they transition into distance learning during school closures due to COVID-19. Prince has already begun his remote schooling from St. Johnsbury Academy and Rush has a week off from Hanover High School before his school work begins again. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/21/2020 8:20:13 PM
Modified: 3/21/2020 8:20:11 PM

On Thursday morning, Elaina Bergamini walked with her children in the woods around her home in Grafton, part of a lesson on nature she was incorporating into her new home-schooling practice.

With schools ordered closed to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, it hasn’t been easy to have all three of her children, ages 9 (10 this week), 5 and 3 home all at once.

“It’s been a little hard to get our feet under us with all the changes,” she said.

But their walk ended around midday at their driveway.

Up pulled a familiar sight, a yellow school bus, there to deliver lunch, not only for Bergamini’s fourth grader, the only one in school, but for all three children.

Since Tuesday, Mascoma Valley Regional School District has been delivering meals to every child age 18 and under who lives in one of the district’s five towns: Canaan, Dorchester, Enfield, Grafton and Orange.

Similar efforts have rolled out in other towns, and more will begin this week, including in Hartford and Lebanon and the towns of the White River Valley Supervisory Union. While schools have come up with a variety of ways to get needed materials into students’ hands, the buses making their rounds are intended to keep students connected with their schools and to keep schoolchildren fed, a role that’s expected to grow in importance as the closure of local schools grinds on.

“You know, it turned out to be a great little interaction,” Bergamini said in a phone interview Thursday, the first day her family greeted the bus.

Her daughter saw one of her teachers, a paraprofessional who was riding the bus, and the brief visit was “a nice way to break up the day,” Bergamini said.

Plus “everybody was very excited to see what was in their lunch bags.”

Most of the formal schooling taking place in the Upper Valley right now is happening online.

But some of what schools provide cannot be digitized. Meals are the most tangible of those services.

This week, Willy Walker, the food service director, or “food dude,” of the White River Valley School District, started offering drive-up meal service at the district’s campuses in Bethel and Royalton.

As in Mascoma, the meals, which also include breakfast for the following morning, are free to anyone 18 and under, regardless of where they live.

That’s in keeping with a summer meals program that’s reimbursed by the federal government, as this program will be.

On Walker’s biggest day so far, Tuesday, White River Valley handed out 153 meals between the two campuses, Walker said.

Delivery by bus is expected to start this week, and Walker expects demand will rise as the coronavirus crisis drags on.

People who are out of work or whose paychecks have been cut will need to make choices, and free meals for their children will make it easier to pay other bills.

Waits River Valley School, a K-8 school for the towns of Corinth and Topsham, Vt., started delivering meals on Wednesday after laying some groundwork the week before, Principal Carlotta Perantoni said Friday.

Each day, the buses carry 380 packages of food, which are handed off or deposited in coolers residents leave by the roadside.

Lebanon School District offered meal pickup at two locations Thursday, the SAU offices in the former Seminary Hill School and Lebanon High School, said Joanne Roberts, the district’s superintendent.

They also made it possible for families to pick up belongings and school assignments, which school staff have packed up.

“We’re trying to be as organized and efficient as we can,” Roberts said in a phone interview.

Lebanon’s meal pickup locations are open weekdays through Monday. On Tuesday, the district moves to delivering meals via its bus routes. As in the Mascoma district, paraeducators will ride the buses to hand out meals.

“We have expectations for all our employees,” Roberts said.

With schools and many other public accommodations closed, educators have stayed on the job in many communities, and some are beginning to ask why.

A group of 13 former New Hampshire teachers of the year has written a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu and Education Secretary Frank Edelblut urging them to tell school superintendents to let teachers stay home.

Parents also have expressed concerns about school districts requiring pickup of materials.

“They want to do the right thing. They need to not be encouraging people to gather unnecessarily,” said Mark Lackley, parent of a student at Woodstock Union Middle School, which had placed course materials in the school lobby for pickup.

Most schoolwork is being done online, Lackley said in a phone interview Thursday.

“They’re 90% of the way there,” Lackley said. “Let’s not trip up on the last 10%.”

On Friday, the middle school announced in an email that it was changing its protocols and that school materials would be available by curb-side pickup only.

Also on Friday, Superintendent Mary Beth Banios said in an interview that the pickup was strictly voluntary and that safety protocols were in place to prevent crowds gathering in the school lobby.

Lackley contended that the only people who should be in the school buildings are cleaning crews.

But civic life and the spirit that maintains it are not easy to switch off.

Debra Ford, business manager for the Mascoma district, started to organize the bus service as soon as Superintendent Amanda Isabelle asked her to.

She already coordinates both food service and transportation, both of which are handled by outside vendors, Cafe Services and Butler’s Bus Service, respectively.

The buses line up at the schools as they would at the end of the day, Ford said, but roll out at 11 a.m. instead.

The program uses the kitchens at all of the district’s schools, Enfield Village School, Canaan Elementary School and the middle and high school complex in West Canaan. The district is using all 16 of its buses and one van to cover roughly 200 square miles.

“We’re making meals as if we’re feeding all the kids on a normal day of school,” Ford said. All someone has to do is show up in the driveway. “Each day we’ve gotten more people,” Ford said.

Tara Lenihan, of Enfield, has been among them. She has five children in her household, from a 3-year-old to an 11th grader.

The meals have made it easier for her to keep her kids at home for all but doctor’s appointments, she said. It also has saved her the time and cost of making five lunches, and breakfasts, each weekday.

The bus also brought a charger for one of her children’s laptop computers.

“It’s really important for the kids, and for us, to have that connection,” Lenihan said in a phone interview.

The paraeducators delivering meals wear disposable gloves, and Lenihan receives them by holding open a tote bag to limit hand-to-hand contact.

It’s a lifeline, a link to normal life, for as long as the crisis lasts.

“We don’t know,” Lenihan said. “No one knows.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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