Brennica Woodcock and her three kids — 11-year-old Skylar, 10-year-old Issabella and 8-year-old Spencer — waited patiently on the corner of Queen Court and Dukes Terrace in Pace on a hot Monday afternoon as a bright yellow school bus pulled up, blaring "The Stars and Stripes Forever" from the loudspeaker, before stopping at the corner.
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Bus driver Teresa Bennett, a 30-year veteran of the Santa Rosa County School District transportation department, pulled the lever inside the bus to open the door. She knew each child by name and called them one by one to the bus entryway, almost as if they were her own kids.
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"What a beautiful shirt that is!" she told Issabella, grinning from ear to ear.
Ann Mullins, a food services worker who, on a normal Monday not during the coronavirus pandemic would be working the cafeteria register at S.S. Dixon Primary School, reached into a large cooler in the back of the school bus and gave each of the children two plastic bags full of food: one breakfast and one lunch. Each bag came with a small piece of paper instructing the children to wash their hands.
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The free food deliveries are part of how the Santa Rosa County School District is trying to reach its students during the coronavirus pandemic, which has shuttered schools across the state until at least April 15. Classes were set to resume remote learning Monday, and Brennica Woodcock said it was a relief to have a lunch break during the middle of teaching her kids about osmosis at the kitchen table.
"This is a huge help right now," Woodcock said. "With them being home and the budget being kind of tight, having this program means we don't have to choose between whether or not they get their allergy medicines or their food."
After making sure there weren't any other kids on the street who were coming to get food, Mullins and Bennett closed the bus doors and headed to their next stop down the street.
"I remember the mom on the next stop has a bunch of young children," Mullins said as she counted how many lunches she had left — 11 out of the 45 she started with.
Like an ice cream truck, but for school lunches
Approximately 41% of the Santa Rosa County School District's 27,000 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. But with unemployment skyrocketing as coronavirus prevention measures shut down restaurants, gyms and other businesses, the district is offering the free breakfasts and lunches to every child in the county under the age of 18. The only qualification is that the child has to be present when the food is distributed.
"When you're in that bus and the kid comes and you see them, and they're smiling, it makes all the backbreaking work worth it," said Amy Padgett, who works in food services at Pace High School.
Each school bus has one bus driver and one food services worker on board to distribute meals. Parents can sign up to have buses stop in their neighborhood through the school bus transportation company's Safe Stop app. Additionally, all buses play "The Stars and Stripes Forever" as they drive slowly through their designated neighborhoods, and any child or parent who approaches the bus can get the free meals.
It's like an ice cream truck — except instead of ice cream, there's cereal, milk, juice, chicken, fruit and other snacks.
It's a small gesture, but one that means a lot to families, Bennett said.
"Somebody said this is kind of like the Twilight Zone, and it kind of feels that way," she said of the pandemic response. "But gosh, it's wonderful. It gives you the best feeling. This is a blessing. I get to see people that I don't normally see, and get to offer them something that they don't normally get. And the look on their face when you hand them this food, they're surprised."
Narissa Gorbey was in the front yard of her home in the Andora Villa Apartments complex with her three young kids, Lilly, Trevor and Ronan.
The kids were playing in a blow-up kiddie pool when they heard the "Stars and Stripes" tune coming down their street. Gorbey grabbed a bag from inside and went over to the bus to greet Bennett and Mullins.
Initially, Gorbey thought she could only get meals for her two school-aged children, Lilly and Trevor. She was happily surprised when Mullins told her they'd give her meals for 2-year-old Ronan as well.
"We only have one car right now, and so it's great that they're doing this because with my husband working I can't go out to pick up the kids' lunches," Gorbey said. "It's been hard to figure out transportation. This makes it much easier."
The Escambia County School District is also offering free lunches and breakfasts to children at more then 30 pickup and drop-off sites throughout the county. Parents in Santa Rosa County also have about a dozen sites where they can physically pick up food for their kids.
Bennett drives Bus 285, which is typically for Exceptional Student Education pupils — students with cognitive or physical disabilities. Being the kind of bus driver who knows each of her riders by name, knows whether they have siblings and knows what their favorite color or cartoon character is, Bennett said she was sad to not have her regular bus routes, but was thankful to at least be able to see students every day.
"I miss those kids like I miss my right arm," she said.
Santa Rosa County school food distribution sites
For those who opt to pick up food instead of having it delivered via school bus:
Effective Monday, the district will be serving breakfast and lunch from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday until further notice. The feeding program will be a drive-thru service, and families will not be permitted to eat on campus.
— Milton High School, 5445 Stewart St., Milton
— East Milton Elementary, 5156 Ward Basin Road, Milton
— Bagdad Elementary, 4512 Forsyth St., Milton
— T.R. Jackson Pre-K Center, 4950 Susan St., Milton
— Russell Elementary, 3740 Excalibur Way, Milton
— Berryhill Elementary, 4900 Berryhill Road, Milton
— Jay Elementary, 13833 Alabama St., Jay
— Central School, 6180 Central School Road, Milton
— Pea Ridge Elementary, 4775 School Lane, Pace
— Holly Navarre Primary, 8019 Escola Street, Navarre
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.