VIRGINIA — On a school bus normally full of children, bus driver Christy Salo drives her route down the open highway and deserted dirt roads. These days, Salo is only accompanied by Kathy Witzman, an LPN with the Virginia Public Schools, and a white plastic cooler in the neighboring seat
Together, the team drives the regular route for bus No. 2. This past week, instead of picking kids up, they hand them breakfast and lunch — made by the Virginia kitchen staff — and the kids go back home.
Back at the school, groundskeeper Tim Tammaro and others waited for the buses to start arriving at the side of Virginia High School to load the meals.
“Yes, there have been some changes lately,” he said with a smile. Tammaro and others are sanitizing the schools and doing other odd jobs like loading the coolers on and off the busses.
Explaining the operation, he pointed toward Door 6, “Kids that live near the school come to that door on the other side and pick up meals. I think things are going to continue to get tougher for people and we are going to give out more and more meals.”
Diana Bachman, head cook for Virginia, greeted the people slowly filling up the oversized garage Friday morning. Those going on the buses started arriving around 8 a.m. and waited for their bus or van to arrive.
“Our routines in the kitchens have totally changed,” Bachman said. Instead of preparing hot meals, the kitchen now packs paper sacks.
Each bag holds a breakfast and lunch which includes: two cartons of milk, two fruits, a vegetable, a breakfast and sandwich. The breakfast item changes between cereal, cereal bar and breakfast bread. The sandwiches rotate between peanut butter and jelly, turkey, ham and turkey with ham.
Friday’s sack had white milk, chocolate milk, an apple, cup of peaches, baby carrots, string cheese, a cereal bar and a peanut butter and jelly Uncrustable sandwich.
“The buses leave here at 8:30 a.m. and all are back by 10 a.m.,” Bachman explained. “They stop at every bus stop and give these free meals to whoever is there.”
Virginia Public Schools hosts daycare for essential workers at both Roosevelt and Parkview, and those children are served these same meals.
“Things are going well since we started on March 24,” said Bob Voss, the bus garage manager. “That first day we delivered 123 meals. Yesterday, April 2, we did 365 meals. The kitchens are preparing more than 400 meals a day.”
“You don’t have to call or sign up,” explained Mandi Johnson, the food and nutrition clerk, “all you do is show up at your regular bus stop. It doesn’t matter what school the child attends.”
On Bus No. 2, driving down a picturesque north country road, Salo, the bus driver, explained that it doesn’t even matter if the child ever rode the bus.
“Everyone has a bus stop,” she said. “We get to the stops two hours later than normal pick up time.”
Salo’s first stop was scheduled for 6:38 a.m., and now Salo and Witzman arrive there at 8:38 a.m.
Bus No. 2 is normally close to the posted capacity of 77 passengers. Some students are dropped off throughout Virginia, but Salo has at least 40 which she drives into the country. Now, it is just the two adults.
“We’ve seen geese, swan, deer and eagles,” said Witzman as they headed out of town.
“The bus is so quiet,” commented Salo. “My everyday hugger doesn’t get a hug anymore,” she said referring to one first grader whose parents asked Salo if she was OK with the physical affection. Even though she would love to continue this contact, it is no longer safe as social distancing is critical to keeping these children healthy.
Coming up to the first stop, three children stand at the end of their driveway and wave to Salo. The eldest comes to the bus door and Witzman, wearing gloves, hands him three white paper bags and three plastic bags each with two cartons of milk.
“So far no one has come to the bus coughing or sneezing,” commented Salo, “everyone seems healthy.”
Leaning back, during a long stretch of road, Witzman explained that she normally provides one-to-one care with a seventh grader, but with the school closing, she was asked to fill a new role. “I asked what they had opened and volunteered to deliver meals.”
Salo and Witzman both have backgrounds in working in nursing homes and providing assisted living care. Ironically, both have changed careers from frontline health care to education, but they are still on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic with the changes to their jobs.
The bus stopped again, this time for three brothers. Down the road just one boy waited for the bus but took back several meals for his siblings.
“Not enough people know about this,” Salo said. “Even with social media, if I reach out to someone on my route they are often surprised. Then they start getting meals and are grateful.”
On Friday, Bus No. 2 had 35 meals, but with the rain, many students didn’t come outside.
“The kids call this the T-Rex Zone,” Salo said as she maneuvered the bus down a rural road. She pointed to a yard with sculptures of dinosaur skeletons. “The kids like to say, ‘Quick! There is a T-Rex on the roof!’ or other silly things.”
Third grader Jake Storich and his first grader sister, Kate Storich, came to the bus door. When asked why they got these meals they responded, “Because it is fun to get lunch from the bus!”
A little further down the route, fourth grader Nick Stark and his first grader brother, Matthew “Chewie” Stark agreed that it was fun and different getting the meals. But said, overall, they missed going to school.
“It’s not that fun,” Chewie said. “I don’t get to see my friends.”
These were the same remarks made by students and school faculty and staff. They miss seeing each other. Unlike most adults involved in the school district, Salo and Witzman get to see the smiling faces of the students who used to ride Bus No. 2.
Heading back towards VHS Salo talked about how at the beginning of this pandemic she would disinfect the seats after each morning and afternoon route. When school was canceled, she scrubbed the whole bus.
“I said we need to find a way to disinfect our windows, too. I have some window lickers,” she stated. “I ask those kids ‘Do you lick the windows in your moms car? No. Why do you do it here, then?’”
Chatter picked up over the bus radio. Drivers asked who needed more meals and who had some left to pass on. Buddy Backpacks, a meal kit for weekends for those in need, were also being dropped off as normal on Fridays.
Bus No. 2 arrived back at VHS with meals left over. Salo stressed that there is no stigma around accepting these meals and the drivers are already out. The sacks are packed and ready to go.
“Why not pick them up?” she concluded.
The meals are free to all children and there is no need to sign up for the service, just be at your nearest bus stop two hours after normal pick up time. If you are interested in participating but don’t know your closest bus stop, contact Bob Voss at the bus garage at 218-741-6240.