RED LAKE -- During a time of uncertainty, community banded together in Red Lake, delivering meals, familiar faces and a sense of normalcy to local students.

The Red Lake School District, similarly to many other school districts facing coronavirus closures, is tackling the issue of getting meals to students, and keeping workers employed in one fell swoop -- school employees shifted into shipping and handling roles as 15 yellow school buses transported over 3,000 meals to Red Lake children Thursday.

Karen LaVine, a middle school science teacher in Red Lake, helps organize meals in the cafeteria on Thursday. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Karen LaVine, a middle school science teacher in Red Lake, helps organize meals in the cafeteria on Thursday. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Packing and preparing

While uplifting music played over the cafeteria loudspeaker, dozens of paraprofessionals, teachers and food service workers labeled boxes of meals. Stacked atop tables were two days worth of meals for elementary, middle and high school students, sorted by bus routes.

Since the schools in Red Lake would have been closed on Friday regardless, the students received two breakfasts and two lunches for Thursday and Friday. For lunch, ham and cheese sandwiches were placed in bags along with fruit, cheese, chips, craisins and milk. For breakfast: cereal, milk, fruit, juice and cheese.

In under three hours, 3,124 meals were packed, prepped and loaded onto buses.

“It just amazes me, the massive undertaking, especially on a day like today, with all of this food, and it goes out fast,” Red Lake Middle School Principal Mark Bensen said.

Kevin Andersen, right, and Steve Ballard load meals into a school bus on Thursday at the Red Lake Secondary Complex. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Kevin Andersen, right, and Steve Ballard load meals into a school bus on Thursday at the Red Lake Secondary Complex. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

During the closure, staff members have been asked to help with making sandwiches, packing, labeling and boxing meals, delivery and cleaning. Teaching staff are also working on distance learning.

“It’s all hands on deck. It’s a lot of organized chaos, but it’s really awesome because everybody’s kicking in, everybody plays a role, and everybody enjoys it,” Bensen said. “Everybody does a really good job of pitching in.”

On the road

Chris Walker, a social worker for the Red Lake Middle and High School, keeps track of meals dropped off on Thursday in the Little Rock community. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Chris Walker, a social worker for the Red Lake Middle and High School, keeps track of meals dropped off on Thursday in the Little Rock community. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Chris Walker and Jamie Lindseth usually spend their weekdays as a school social worker and a behavior interventionist, respectively. This week, they found themselves packing meals and navigating delivery routes around the Little Rock community of Red Lake.

Buses continue to follow their regular routes to deliver meals. The Red Lake School District meal delivery range spans from Redby to Neptune -- Red Lake School Board Chairman Chris Jourdain joked that they deliver meals all across the galaxy.

Walker and Lindseth manned a bus filled with boxes of meals. The two jumped at the chance to ride on the buses to be able to see some of their students they’ve been missing all week.

Somewhat reminiscent of an ice cream truck, when the bus horn blared, children came running down their driveways. With all of the cheeriness and smiling faces, one might forget the world is in the middle of a pandemic.

Walker and Lindseth only acknowledged a few hazards along the drive: puddles of slush and dogs. “We’ve been running down some gnarly roads,” Lindseth said.

One particular dog has been giving Walker a hard time all week. “That’s the dog right there! I’m not going out, we’ll have to toss (the meal) out the window,” he said laughing.

Cars line up as meals are delivered via school bus on Thursday to students in the Little Rock community of Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Cars line up as meals are delivered via school bus on Thursday to students in the Little Rock community of Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Familiar faces

Lindseth said the interaction with the kids along the delivery route has been, “awesome” so far. “They’ve just been super excited to see us, even though it’s only been a few days. Most of them have come running out, especially kids that we’re close to.”

One student who came running to greet the bus in her flip flops was Kaeleigh Lussier.

Principal Bensen said on Thursday that some students stood outside of the locked school, waving at teachers because they missed coming to class.

“We had three kids come up to the school that just kind of wanted to wave and say hi,” he said.

Kaeleigh Lussier, was presumably not one of those students, because when asked, she said she was glad school was canceled, and that she liked being at home. “I do miss my best friends,” she added.

When Walker asked her if she missed her teachers, she said, laughing, “not you.”

While most of the children along the route said "no," when asked if they missed school, Walker said he thinks they want to come back, even if they won’t admit it.

“I think they are excited to come back, if they do get to come back,” he said. “We’re super close with quite a few of them, so it’s always good to see them, it makes my day too.”

Three brothers, Alex, Douglas and Andrew Feather, greeted Walker and Lindseth outside of their house.

“I miss chilling with you at school,” Douglas said to Walker.

The two made plans to play a quick game of basketball on the next delivery day.

“Monday then, I’ll see you Monday,” Feather said.

“Okay, you better bring out your basketball,” Walker said.

Jamie Lindseth and Chris Walker say goodbye to students after dropping meals off at their home on Thursday in the Little Rock community. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Jamie Lindseth and Chris Walker say goodbye to students after dropping meals off at their home on Thursday in the Little Rock community. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Many students have told Walker and Lindseth that they are already bored, which is unfortunate because the current recommendations for school closures from the CDC indicate school closures are most effective at a length of eight weeks or more.

“They said they’re already bored, ‘oh no, there’s so much time left,’” Lindseth said.

“A few kids thought the buses were there to come get them to go to school and we had to tell them ‘no, not yet,’” Walker added.

COVID-19 concerns

While on the bus, updated COVID-19 case numbers came in at 89 in Minnesota at the time. As of press time Friday afternoon, Minnesota has 115 confirmed cases.

Lindseth, while crossing her fingers for good luck, expressed concern that if the coronavirus were to come to the Red Lake area, it would be devastating, noting that many of the students’ guardians were elders.

On March 13, the Red Lake Tribal Council declared COVID-19 a public health emergency. As of Friday afternoon, there are no confirmed cases in the area or in northern Minnesota.

Some flexibility required

When the order to close schools was issued by Gov. Tim Walz, implementing new challenges for schools across the state, educators got to work immediately.

“It’s been hectic, it’s been a scramble, but I am so blessed, the staff here has been amazing,” Red Lake Superintendent Melinda Crowley said. “Everyone’s just pulled together, and they’re doing it.”

In a daily COVID-19 update video, Superintendent Crowley told staff members, “blessed are the flexible, for they don’t get bent out of shape.”

The staff members have been more than flexible.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations changing daily and new orders coming from the state and federal government, it can be tough to keep up. Teachers are being asked to change everything about how they deliver coursework, and staff members are being asked to do entirely different jobs, with little notice.

“It’s a really good example of working together, and what’s challenging is, we’ve been having to make all of these decisions right now, but the information seems to constantly be changing, so we are racking our brains trying to come up with solutions, but then things change,” Chairman Jourdain said.

The Minnesota Department of Education offered guidance as to meal delivery, but some things just won’t work the same in Red Lake as they may in other areas.

Jourdain said the Minnesota Department of Health recommendation of delivery by bus and leave at doorstep won’t work as well in Red Lake.

“That would work fine in the cities, but here we have our own unique set of challenges. There are some roads you can’t get buses down, and you don’t have to have your dogs leashed up here, so you can’t just leave food outside,” he said.

While all schools in the state are required to provide meals to students who need them, many other schools are offering pick-up or drive-ups to distribute their meals. Red Lake is delivering to every student who wants a meal, which is a large undertaking.

Bensen said the reason the district is choosing to deliver to all students is to ensure everyone was treated equitably, and the solution of delivery also keeps school staff working.

“Transportation can be an issue for some families, we wanted to make sure we were equitable across the board,” he said.

Bringing a community together, while social distancing

It can be difficult to imagine a situation that discourages groups of more than 10 people from congregating would actually bring a community closer together. But this is what is happening in Red Lake -- people coming closer together, while socially distancing.

Superintendent Crowley said while situations like this are trying, they often help communities to bond together stronger than ever.

“Sometimes stressful situations like this, this controversy, this uncertainty, builds community, and maybe that’s what we need right now," she said.

She also noted the community has been overwhelmingly supportive of the schools during this time. “It’s been very positive, everyone is just very supportive and very positive, even in the community, they’re banding together."

A grandma called me the other day to say, ‘our road is really bad, so I took a count and these are the kids and the families that are down there, I talked to them and they will come to my house to pick (the meals) up so you guys don’t have to drive as far,’ it’s those kind of things that are happening that are really heartwarming, I got goosebumps just repeating that,” she said.

Bensen agreed. “We’ve had some community members ask to volunteer, there’s just been a lot appreciation for the schools right now,” he said.

Red Lake School employees walk meals up to a home on Thursday in the Little Rock community of Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Red Lake School employees walk meals up to a home on Thursday in the Little Rock community of Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

When will this end?

Walker said the biggest question he’s been hearing from students is, “When do we get to come back?”

Students don’t know when or if they will be able to return to school. Many students in Red Lake didn’t get the opportunity to say goodbye to their friends, as school was canceled for the state basketball tournament before the governor’s executive order was made.

“In our situation with the state tournament and not being able to say any goodbyes whatsoever, all of these kids didn’t have that opportunity to have any closure, or say goodbye or grab their stuff, I feel like it’s hard for the kids, it’s hard for the staff,” Bensen said.

The COVID-19 epidemic has left many questions unanswered. Staff doesn’t know how long the meal delivery will continue, but they are prepared to keep going as long as necessary.

Bensen noted they have gotten faster and more efficient every day so far. “We’re getting better every day,” he said.

Jourdain noted that he has heard concerns from seniors worried about whether graduation ceremonies would go on as scheduled. “I can’t answer that, but I try to reassure them. There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

“I’m trying to be proactive and think ahead, but how do you plan for something when you don’t know what’s going to happen?”

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