MONTICELLO — For most of her seven years serving planning meals for schoolchildren, Anna Fredricks felt a bit peripheral to the educational experience.
It took a pandemic, but lunch ladies as they are more commonly known, at least in places like San Juan County, are finally getting the love — and recognition — they deserve.
“It kind of goes without saying, but our kitchen staff, our food service people, they were incredible,” said Mike Tuckfield, principal of Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary School, where 100% of the students rely on free lunches.
“Academics is our main priority, of course,” he said. “But second to it, would be the health and welfare of our community. The only way we could continue to do that was do food service.”
In about two days, Fredricks and her food service staff went from an almost invisible support network to a vital system that helped sustain children in the remote area that has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
After all, they are delivering nearly 5,000 meals per day.
“Maybe they don’t feel as important as teachers or administrators, but in this instance, we’ve seen that food service is one of the most important elements of (the education system),” Fredricks said. “For the first two weeks, I got really stressed out. I would come home, and I would literally cry. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, or what we were going to do. And then after everyone stepped in and we figured things out, I just felt so much gratitude. Especially for the ladies and men who work in my department.”
San Juan County Superintendent Ron Nielson said it was nothing short of spectacular the way his staff adapted to not just a new educational reality, but an economic situation that left vulnerable families even more at risk.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a more collaborative effort that required us to go beyond the boundaries of a given expectation than what I saw in our staff making sure our students received educational materials and meals,” Nielson said. “At first, we thought it would be pretty standard fixing the meals and delivering them.”
But very quickly, they realized that supply chain issues would make almost half of what they normally had access to unavailable.
Fredricks said they use a local supplier for meat (Blue Mountain), and that helped significantly. But Nielson said Fredricks also reached out to Moab hotels and restaurants, knowing they’d have surpluses, as well as colleges and stores.
“She was able to acquire enough supplies in food to provide the meals and sustain us when I thought we were probably not going to be able to do that,” he said.
Food service is something people tend to take for granted.
But in the section of the state hit hardest by the new coronavirus, delivering nearly 5,000 meals per day became as vital as getting children their schoolwork — and just as complicated. And while most recognized the remarkable pivot made by teachers, it was a bit easier to miss just how remarkable it was that districts, especially in rural areas, could completely change the way they served the state’s children.
“It’s something that happens every day, so people don’t really recognize it,” Fredricks said of food service. “This made them heroes, and it’s been really awesome to see them all step up.”
The 42 heroes, who make sure San Juan County’s schoolchildren get breakfast and lunch, became adaptable and creative in a situation that required flexibility and innovation from every single person involved in the educational system, including parents, administrators, custodial staff and teachers.
“And so many people jumped in to help us, we had at least as many helpers as we had employees,” she said. “Sometimes maybe two to three times the regular staff I have.”
In fact, in a small district like San Juan, most everyone found themselves doing more — and different — things in the wake of the shutdown. Their efforts became even more important as the Navajo Nation, which includes a section of San Juan County, suffered one of the worst outbreaks in the country.
Every Monday and Thursday, Kya Ellett, went to Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary School where she normally taught second grade and helped Fredricks’ crew pack and prepare food.
“We all just had been brainstorming of what can we do for homework? What can we do for food?” she said as she loaded crates filled with packets of homework and sacks of food into stacks that will eventually be loaded onto school buses. “It has changed over time. When we first started, we had buses going out every single day with food but homework twice a week.”
She said what concerned her most is that the school is already behind and she hasn’t heard from many of her students.
“We’re in turnaround, which means we’re in the lowest percentile of test scores for the state. … Now we’ll be even more behind.”
Tuckfield acknowledged those fears, as well, even as he said the school had been making impressive progress before the shutdown. Some teachers said they’d heard from only a handful of students since the shutdown, while others helped with food deliveries, in part to be helpful and in part to wave and say hello to the students they love.
While some teachers struggled to come up with online lessons in a matter of days, Ellett said they have students without internet, so they focused on creating “packets, packets, packets, packets.”
For most teachers, communication with their students has been difficult.
“I’ve only gotten back homework from four or five,” Ellett said. “We can’t do anything about it, because we can’t go out to houses, and sometimes the phone numbers don’t work.”
She’s taken to Facebook and other social media apps to try and find ways to connect with her students.
Jeremiah Holiday is normally a gym teacher at the elementary school, but the coronavirus shutdown turned him into “whatever the school needs.”
On an unusually warm recent morning, he found himself preparing bags of food and carrying crates of homework and meals to waiting school buses.
“It’s been challenging,” he said of what it’s been like during the pandemic. “I’m open to anything. … We just have to be flexible.”
For parents like Tiffany Chee, the effort district officials are making to ensure that her children had both educational material and two meals a day, it was a vital lifeline at a time of great stress and uncertainty.
“I think they miss their classes and their classmates a lot,” she said, as she picked up homework and food for her children and two families who live further away from the bus stop than she does. “But it’s also nice having them home.”
Her children could help her care for their livestock, and she said she tried to fit in their school lessons whenever they could. Brenda Silas met a school bus on a blustery, hot afternoon and said she was worried about her daughter, a junior in high school, falling behind because they don’t have cell service.
She said her daughter could sit in the parking lot of the school and use their Wi-Fi, but it wasn’t the best environment for finishing homework.
Melana Benally understands that completely.
“The kids don’t want to sit out there,” she said of working in the parking lot of the school or other businesses. “Who wants to sit out there in a car? It’s too hot.”
She said taking over as teacher has been difficult for both her and her children.
“The toughest thing is that we don’t have a landline,” she said. “We have wireless, but it’s not fast. It’s slow, and the kids get frustrated.”
She said the schools sent out hot spots, but they get overloaded when too many people use the cell service, and it makes it unreliable.
When asked what might happen if she was asked to oversee the education of her three children this fall, she laughed.
Let’s just say most parents are hoping school is back in session this fall. Summer classes were canceled, and with them, this summer’s meal service was also canceled.
Fredricks said they managed to become a pretty well-oiled machine after just a few days, and if needs be, they could continue next fall.
“I think we’ve got it pretty well nailed down, but I certainly hope that’s not the case,” she said. “We want kids back in the building, and they want things to feel normal. We took for granted what normal was and how reassuring it was. But I think we’d be find to keep going like this if need be.”
Nielson said when he looks back at what they were able to do, he’s in awe.
“We didn’t miss a day,” he said. “It’s really an amazing accomplishment, and a credit to the dedication of our employees, to make sure these kids were taken care of in every way.”
Marylena Yellowman, Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary School librarian, bags food to distribute to students at in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. While schools are closed due to COVID-19, school bus drivers are delivering homework and food to students two days a week. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Homework is boxed and ready to be distributed on bus driver Rosie Fatt’s route in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. While schools are closed due to COVID-19, school bus drivers are delivering homework and food to students two days a week. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Thurman Cly, school interventionist, and Amy Reeve, fifth grade teacher, load a box of food into a school bus to deliver to students while schools are closed due to COVID-19, outside of Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary School in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Cara Luna, Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary School fourth grade teacher, hands homework to second grader Chloe Benally from a school bus that delivers food and homework two days a week while schools are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News