School delivery program a bright spot in uncertain times

by Mackenzie Reiss
March 25, 2020 1:00 AM

“Start your engines,” a voice crackled over the radio.

A fleet of school buses was lined up and loaded with meals, school supplies and yes, even toilet paper, to be delivered to students on Thursday afternoon.

The convoy was all part of the district’s solution for returning students’ belongings and continuing the school’s free and reduced lunch program.

Not long after schools across the state were ordered to close, Bigfork Schools established a form system online through the district’s website where parents could make their needs known. A team of bus aides and drivers would then distribute the necessary items.

Thursday afternoon’s route was the first supply run the school conducted since Gov. Steve Bullock directed all K-12 public schools to shut their doors through March 27. Closing schools, canceling events and shuttering bars and restaurants are among the many measures recently being undertaken by state and federal governments to reduce the the spread of the coronavirus. Currently, 46 cases have been identified in Montana including one part-time resident who tested positive out of state. Four COVID-19 patients are located in Flathead County.

For those delivering materials and meals, the routes were a source of joy. Juanita Wiley, a bus aide and paraprofessional, was able to connect with students she was accustomed to seeing during the school week. She and the other aids and drivers also got to be part of a larger effort that ensured local students had the food and supplies necessary to continue their education. Students in grades 5 through 12 transitioned to virtual classes last week, while younger kids will work off paper materials and a selection of online educational videos.

As Bus 18, driven by Leon Cook, wound through the neighborhoods off Crestview Drive, it was clear that families had gotten word of the delivery program. Gaggles of kids on bikes waited at their stop, offering big waves and smiles to match as the bus came into view. Wiley put her hand to her chest, grinning at the sight.

“I’m touched and I’m overwhelmed at the same time,” she said. “It’s a great reminder how much the kids love us — and we need them as much as they need us.”

Inside the bus, instead of children in the seats, were bags full of supplies with students’ names on them, a few musical instruments and lots of pre-packed meals.

The school has fielded more than 200 requests for items or meals since launching the online form and will continue to run the bus routes to deliver supplies and meals three days per week throughout the remainder of the closure, including spring break.

Wiley moved quickly up and down the bus stairs to deliver the goods to students and their families in gloved hands.

“Hi, Ms. Wiley!”

“We miss you,” they’d say before returning to their games or heading back inside.

At the vast majority of stops, groups of children and their parents were waiting.

Only a few expressed a need for toilet paper and just one parent approached the bus with sanitary wipes in-hand. There were no masks being worn, no sense of panic among the delivery crew or the families — it was just a collection of people making the best of an unprecedented situation.

As the bus returned to the school grounds, it was lighter — in more ways than one. ■

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$ID/NormalParagraphStyle:MACKENZIE REISS PHOTOS | Bigfork Eagle $ID/NormalParagraphStyle:Paraprofessional and bus aide Juanita Wiley delivers a bag of school supplies to a parent in the Crestview Drive area last Thursday, March 18.

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Families of students greet Bus 18 with a smile as it makes one of more than 20 stops along its route.

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Bags of school supplies fill seats in Bus 18. Parents used an online form to request items like books, meals and instruments.