Volume XX | Issue 2 | Fall 2020
Jen Shilling, left, and Peggy Carson load food items and packets of learning resources into a van before setting off on their delivery route in Yoncalla in July. Photo: Michael Sullivan

Education expands its role

In addition to lesson plans, schools deliver meals, books

When COVID-19 emptied classrooms in Oregon schools last spring, it highlighted the critical role schools play — not just in education but in the community. Besides providing remote instruction, district employees worked with community groups to deliver meals and essential home supplies, provide child care, and check in with vulnerable populations.

Amidst all the uncertainty about how schools were going to operate was the conviction that they needed to continue their mission of serving students and their families. Along the way, districts have been assessing and refining the way they deliver services. “It’s forcing districts to evaluate what’s working, what’s effective, what’s not,” says Nate Schult, program officer for The Ford Family Foundation.

Food insecurity

The Yoncalla School District is one of many districts in Oregon that delivered meals directly to students’ homes. When it became apparent that entire families were struggling with food security, the district decided to expand the program to include all families with children from birth to 18 years old, and to deliver enough food for the entire week.

The district seized the opportunity to revamp the food program in response to an earlier needs assessment, which found that families wanted to learn how to cook healthier foods. Food boxes now include whole foods, fruits and vegetables, along with USDA-approved recipes.

We have learned what a community-builder food can be.

“We have learned what a community-builder food can be,” says Erin Helgren, Yoncalla Early Works director and the alignment coordinator for the district. “And it has really solidified the school as a place for families to go where kids get their needs met.”

Yoncalla also invited the library to be part of the program, and throughout the summer the district delivered meals, books and learning activities to about 150 families.

Helgren identified a couple of unintended consequences. Staff members, she says, collaborated in unprecedented ways to make the program work. And it also provided the district with a way to connect with families. “Families are feeling very socially and rurally isolated right now, and this allowed us to check on the welfare of children,” she says. 

In Douglas County, the “Thank an Educator” project coordinated by Douglas Education Service District brought to light the many ways educators were continuing to support families even when students were learning from home (see below). Students and parents nominated outstanding educators through a Google form, and a Foundation grant provided winners with gift cards for area businesses. There were stories of teachers sending text messages, making phone calls, delivering learning materials, creating virtual art exhibits, conducting virtual music lessons and providing daily meals.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has had devastating consequences for school districts and the families they serve, but there is also room for hope. 

“The pandemic is an opportunity for increased collaboration and for districts to come together, for ESDs to play a role, for other community partners to think about what is needed, what is best for kids,” says Schult. “It’s a chance for us to think collectively on how to help address those needs, because none of us have the resources to go at it alone.”  

Parents say thanks to special teachers

In Douglas County, the “Thank an Educator” project gave parents a public way to show their appreciation to teachers who supported their students through tough times. Here are just a few of the comments:

“We have had a rough year as a family and then all this hit. [My child’s teacher] has reached out to me making sure everything is okay and seeing if there is anything extra my daughter, or even our family, needs. Before the virus hit, he was already an awesome teacher. He helped the kids learn to concentrate through chaos, taught them all about fish and their life cycle, had fun dance parties to get things started in the mornings.”

“[My child’s teacher] made distance learning exciting, fun and educational. Each week she created videos of herself going to imaginary places like a deserted island or wrangling a cow. All of the videos were created for a math, science, or English lesson which made the learning process fun and allowed the students to also use their imaginations.” 

“[These two teachers] gave their students something positive to look forward to each day, videos that were the closest to being in the classroom as they could get, some fun banter, a little ukulele music and a great art lesson too!”

“[She] has called my children multiple times to check in with them and to just talk on days when distant learning seemed to bring out meltdowns. She listened when we were overwhelmed and made it less complicated.”

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