TERS bus drivers and food service delivering food for thought and nourishment during COVID-19 shutdown
PABLO — The coronavirus COVID-19 has caused drastic adjustments in the lives of people worldwide including this little corner of the world. One of the main social components of life in America — education — has had to make major adjustments overnight since the big shutdown caused by the pandemic COVID-19. That caused a quick pivot on how to provide for student education. Thankfully modern technology has facilitated the deliverance of education from the schoolhouse to the homes of students.
Since March 10, Two Eagle River School has been on an “essential-workers” only operation. That’s when the Tribal Council took measures to scale back its affiliated operations to essential personnel only.
On March 16, Governor Steve Bullock ordered a statewide shutdown of school. Those measures have caused an eerie silence in the building that is usually engulfed with a noisy bustle of activity. Gone are the students and teachers. However not gone is the educational mission of TERS.
“We were on spring break when we got the notice to close down,” said TERS Superintendent Rodney Bird. “We had a week to work things out before spring brea k ended. The advantage of high-tech helped us link the students and teachers over the internet.”
A lot of planning was needed to adjust to the new avenue of educational deliverance. Not all of the TERS students had personal computers and some of those that did didn’t have internet access. However, most had cell phone access. TERS had enough iPads available for the students via the Apple Connect educational program. They equipped them with sim cards and gave them to the students so they could communicate with teachers in virtual classrooms and individually.
“The staff had a week to get ready to deliver our academic mission to the students. Once we got all the adjustments in place and went remote; we hit the ground running,” Bird said. “We are making the best of this situation and coming up with creative ways to deliver instruction to our students.”
The essential on-site workers include bus drivers, food service, facility manager and some administrative personnel.
Why bus drivers and food service personnel, one might ask. They are an essential cog in the education wheel. They assist in the deliverance of lunches and faculty assignments to TERS students.
The five bus drivers — Michael Kenmille, Tony Garcia, A.J. McDonald, Kimberly Sheumaker and Mel Wolf — cover the length of the Flathead Reservation from Elmo to Evaro to get the school lessons and lunches to students.
The bus drivers and food service personnel — Lena Burland, Sandra Ovitt, and Gabby Big Beaver — work together to get homework assignments and lunches ready respectively for daily delivery. Facility manager Vernon Christopher and staff ensure that the potential of the coronavirus is held at bay with a thorough cleaning of the buildings, and daily cleaning of areas being used daily, such as the administration offices, and the foodservice and commons areas.
The bus drivers are the ones who come in physical contact with the students on their routes.
“We are the physical contact of the school and students,” Kenmille said. “Two Eagle has a little more connection with students and families than public schools. It’s a part of what we do. We’re kind of like their other parents. We maintain the physical connection; it is important to the relationship here. We are the faces of the school Two Eagle students see throughout the school week.”
“We see over a hundred of them every day,” Sheumaker said. “Day-to-day social interaction is important. The students share with us what they are up to. The interaction is amazing.”
Because the students honor the shelter-in-place recommendations and rely on the bus drivers to do minor errands for them.
“A lot of them can’t get to the stores so we do that for them,” Garcia said. “I have kids asking me to get them some pop or candy so I go to the store for them. They are always very appreciative.”
“I like this job, it allows me to go out and about and be in contact with the students and their families,” McDonald said. “The clock is always running for me and the other drivers. The time of day doesn’t matter. We get messages during our off days from the kids. We help them out any way we can.”
One of the things the students want when it comes to the lunches is biscuits and gravy.
“What we’re doing now with the lunches is totally different from cooking meals. That includes the things we buy and the menu,” Burland said. “This has been a challenge but we’ve adapted and are getting through this but the kids are missing biscuits and gravy.”
Just by its nature — an Indian school on an Indian reservation — Two Eagle River School has a tighter-woven school community that goes beyond the doors of the school into the homes of the student body. The students’ families are an important part of the fulfillment of the education mission at TERS, Bird said
“We focus on the whole child education philosophy at Two Eagle. The students, families, teachers, and staff are all a part of the educational team here,” Bird said. “That allows the Native families to take ownership of the education of these young students like it used to be.”
Traditionally, among Indian tribal people, the entire multigenerational family was involved in the education of children. The result was that education was a life-long endeavor with various and different age-related obligations in education that included the practical, philosophical and spiritual. That is replicated as much as possible in the deliverance of education under a goulash of public education mandates of the Montana Office of Public Instruction, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes governing body, through the TERS school board.
The TERS administration is at the wheel to ensure all the various mandates are being fulfilled during these historical times. The administration conducts business with faculty, and meetings with the BIA education office personnel, and OPI electronically via the internet.
“We have an amazing staff here who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to provide for the education of the student body and their families. We have pulled together as a family and we will all work our way through this as a family,” Bird said. “This situation will make us a tighter family.”