Every Monday and Wednesday, a flurry of rubber-gloved hands pry open hundreds of crinkly brown paper bags at Lacey Spring Elementary School on the outskirts of Harrisonburg.
The rustling lunch sacks are passed one by one down the kitchen assembly line. A team of school employees hunch over metal tables for three hours. Inside each bag, they plop apples, cheese sticks and juice boxes. Rows of finished bags line every spare inch of counter space.
At 3:45 p.m., the employees wheel the bags outside, where a parade of cars has assembled. Nervous parents inch their vans forward. Tiny fingers and noses mash against the back windows. The kids’ eyes dart between the faces of the employees, searching for their teachers. Some shout through their parents’ cracked windows:
“Ms. May, I miss you!”
“Ms. Greene, when can we come back to school?”
“Ms. Ryman, I love you!”
Since Gov. Ralph Northam (D) closed all Virginia schools March 23 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, local school districts have drawn up a program to ensure that all students have food while school’s on hold.
Nine schools in Rockingham County, including Lacey Spring, are hubs where families can pick up meals twice each week for children ages 2 to 18. The schools supply families with two breakfasts and two supper meals on Mondays, and three breakfasts and three suppers on Wednesdays.
“We’re giving our families security,” Bobbie Arbogast, who teaches gifted learners at Lacey Spring, said. “People are losing jobs and are scared but at least we can give them meals.”
Forty percent of Rockingham County students receive free or reduced-price lunches, while 73% of Harrisonburg City students utilize the program.
Harrisonburg City Schools have also added a “drive-thru style” system. Families in the city can pick up three days’ worth of meals on Tuesdays and four days’ worth on Thursdays at any of the district’s eight pick-up locations.
Both locales are preparing food from their usual suppliers, but Harrisonburg City has partnered with several community agencies and charities like the Hope Distributed food bank and Crosslink Community Church.
The programs started out slowly. Lacey Spring handed out 60 meals on its first day of operation. However, last Monday, the school, which is located off Route 11, gave out 200 meals — 26 meals shy of their all-time high on April 15. The largest pick-up location in the county, Plains Elementary in Timberville, served 320 meals in mid-April.
Andrea Early, executive director of school nutrition for Harrisonburg City, said they’ve provided over 147,000 meals since March 17.
Speculation on how school and the lunch program would continue during the pandemic shifted rapidly at first. Early said she could barely keep up. This, when paired with food scarcity and other limitations, made the feat feel “impossible.”
“Making sure our kids are all fed during this pandemic has been the biggest challenge of my professional career,” Early said. “But I’m part of a team and school system that can overcome any challenge. I’ve been overwhelmed to tears by the human spirit in Harrisonburg.”
The pick-up programs in Rockingham and Harrisonburg are run by administrators, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and teachers who volunteer. Sherry Ryman, a reading teacher at Lacey Spring, said she signed up to help right away.
“If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to say, ‘I miss you and I love you’ to my kids,” Ryman said. “This gives me a purpose while I can’t do what I love to do, which is teach.”
At the program’s busiest, Ryman said, eight cars have looped around the elementary school’s parking lot. Each car scoots past three stations to collect food. At the first table, Arbogast greets the family and asks how many kids they’re picking up for and what kind of milk the kids want. She said it’s almost always chocolate.
At the next stop, the bagging team drops in one hot entree, the last item in an already bulging bag of packaged cold items. The final stop in the cars’ procession is an empty table. Staff stack completed bags there for the families to collect in a contactless fashion.
“We’re a well-oiled machine,” Tammy May, the school’s principal, said. “We’re mixing food with love.”
Last Monday, May decided to do something special for her kids at Lacey Spring. She and her staff paired a book donated from local churches or stripped from the school’s own shelves with the meal bags.
“I’ll replace the books we gave away,” May said. “That’s easy. I just want books in the kids’ hands now.”
This isn’t the first time Lacey Spring staff have gone the extra mile for their students. The crew of volunteers once sang “Happy Birthday” to students through a window and one day they rummaged through classrooms for leftover snacks when they ran out of food. Additionally, the school counselor, Katie Greene, frolics around the drive-thru line in a different costume each day — a unicorn, a princess, a dinosaur.
“The kids get nervous seeing us all in masks,” Greene said. “I just wanted to make them laugh.”
The team has received drawings and thank you notes from pupils.
Parents have broken down and confided in teachers at the pick-up location. May said she’s been surprised by the families who have needed the assistance because they were nervous to reveal it in the past. While being “limited” in the ways the school can help now, May said, this experience has revealed ways it can be a vehicle of greater support for its families.
The wind and rain are sometimes a challenge for the Lacey Spring team, but each educator declared the same biggest hurdle:
“It’s so hard to see them but not hug them,” Ryman said. “There’s been a few tearful moments.”
This new reality where teachers who are used to high fives and hugs are reduced to waves through a window is “painful,” but May is confident that the future will look brighter for teachers and their students.
“We’re going to get through this and we’ll be stronger than ever,” May said. “And we’re going to have the biggest party ever when school gets back.”
Contact Brice Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.