• Joseph F. Berenato

District works to keep students fed


The school district has been working hard to keep its students fed. Hammonton Middle School Food Service Manager Michelle Cowen, Sarah Wood and Richard Nartey prepare to load food to be delivered to students. (Courtesy Photo)

HAMMONTON—When the Hammonton school district switched to full-remote learning on December 17, it faced a host of new challenges, school officials said, including making sure students in need were being fed.


“This unconventional school year has brought many challenges to the district. Beyond the educational impact of remote and hybrid instruction, we must still meet basic needs of our students,” said Superintendent of Schools Robin Chieco.


One of those needs, Chieco said, is the necessity to form connections.


“As many families have chosen remote learning, some students have not been completing assignments or checking in with their teachers. As a result, our guidance counselors have made home visitations to students of concern. This has allowed us to better provide additional supports for students in need,” Chieco said.


Mike Ryan, supervisor of student personnel services for the district, said that the counseling department continually reviews the academic performance of each student.


“Our counseling department continually reviews the academic performance of each student. Counselors have been scheduling Google Meet and Zoom meetings with parents and students who are failing, not attending, nor participating in remote instruction. In some cases, these meetings are sufficient to address academic and social/emotional concerns,” Ryan said.


In some cases, Ryan said, counselors are not able to make contact through phone or email.


“Counselors began making home visits at the end of first marking period as an increasing number of students switched to full remote learning. With more students at home there became an increasing need for counselors to address additional educational barriers specific to families in need,” Ryan said.


Whenever possible, Ryan said, home visits are scheduled with the parent or guardian and the student to ensure that such a visit will be productive.


“In some situations, it is necessary for counselors to provide unscheduled visits. Each home visit is uniquely tailored to address each family circumstance. In some cases, a student might simply need a Chromebook, hotspot, other classroom materials or even food delivered to the front doorstep. In other situations, social/emotional counseling takes place that sometimes requires the assistance of other community support resources,” Ryan said.


Ryan said that the district’s guidance counselors coordinate their efforts when determining the nature of a home visit.


“They work together to determine what the needs are, how and with whom they should be addressed and which counselors are best suited to make the actual visit to the home of a particular family. Over 100 visits have been made this school year, as counselors continue to service all families, whether the students are full-remote learners or hybrid-model participants,” he said.


Ryan said that counselors throughout the district, not just one school or age group, work on such outreach efforts.


“There is often an overlap because many times there are siblings/cousins living in the same household, and because of varying ages they are registered in multiple schools. In some instances, counselors can address family concerns with various age children during the same household visit ... Our goal here is to help all students be successful by removing obstacles that would otherwise impede their academic and social/emotional progress,” Ryan said.


As Ryan noted, some of the students in question need food brought to them. Chieco concurred.


“As a large percentage of our students, especially in the lower grades, are entitled to free and reduced lunches, we have provided breakfast and lunch throughout the pandemic to any family in need with school-age children. Our food service department distributes multiple-day packages of breakfast and lunch on Wednesdays. Any family that cannot pick up these meals can have them delivered by our transportation department,” Chieco said.


Heather Triboletti, the district’s food service supervisor, explained further.


“We are still hoping that those families who can come and pick up meals do that, but, we’ve had teachers contact us and we’ve also had counselors contact us and families personally have contacted us when they have been in need, if they don’t have the transportation to get here,” Triboletti said.


Triboletti said that the efforts have been aided by Myrna Santiago of the Puerto Rican Civic Association.


“She has been working with me to make sure that the Spanish-speaking community is aware and able to receive deliveries if they need them. She’s added to our list quite a bit of the families who aren’t able to get here. We’re glad about that, because we want to be able to help as many people that aren’t able to get here as well,” Triboletti said.


Triboletti noted that the food service department prepares approximately 550 bags of food each week.

“There’s seven meals of breakfast in one bag, then seven meals of lunch in another bag. We bag them separately, but we give one of each bag to each child that is 18 and under. We’re doing a full week’s worth of meals now,” Triboletti said.


Previously, Triboletti noted, the department was preparing five days’ worth of meals.


“The last time that we were approved with our new application packet, we updated to doing a full week’s worth of meals. The federal government is willing to cover the cost of that right now, even on weekends and holidays. We’re getting as many meals out there as we can to try to help out families. It’s been really good,” Triboletti said.


Triboletti noted that there have been challenges with the program, but those challenges have not been insurmountable.


“We have issues from time to time with getting different products, because all of the districts in the area who are doing the same thing are trying to get the same products that we are trying to get, but we somehow work it out. The girls come together and figure out what we can do with products that we have here in stock. They’ve been doing a great job in getting the meals out there,” she said.


Once the meals are prepared and ready to go, it is up to the school’s transportation department to deliver them.


“The bus garage comes in between 9 and 9:30 a.m., and they have the bags of breakfast and lunch prepared—with seven meals in each bag,” Triboletti said.


Toni Mazza, the district’s transportation supervisor, explained further.


“We use our minivans, and we’re going to be using them plus our small buses. We haven’t put any big ones on the road yet, because it’s kind of hard to handle getting the boxes in that high and then getting them out, so we’re trying to keep it to the smaller vehicles—because the boxes are heavy. If we have three or four students in a home—we’re doing every child that lives in that home—it can be even heavier,” Mazza said.


Mazza said that, utilizing a list of children who receive deliveries, she draws up bus routes.


“We were doing the whole town with four, but I just recently increased it to six. We have six routes in Hammonton, and we have one going to Waterford, for a total of seven routes. I use two drivers on each route: one to drive, and one to help with the delivery. It goes fairly well; they are delivering a lot of food, which is awesome,” Mazza said.


At last count, Mazza said, there were 213 children to whom food is being delivered.

Mazza said that many of the drivers have begun to build a rapport with the families.


“They call them ahead of time, let them know—because the last thing we want to do is leave a box sitting on somebody’s porch and have them not get to it—so we keep in contact with the families, either before we get to the stop to let them know; some of them have a code now, like ring the phone twice or ring the doorbell once, so they know to come out and get them ... It’s all for a good cause, and the drivers are totally on board with it,” Mazza said.


One such driver is Wendy Vandervort, who agreed with Mazza.


“Getting the kids their lunches is a fulfilling thing to do,” Vandervort said.


Bus driver David Capelli expressed a similar sentiment.


“Helping deliver the lunches is a great little job to help out families in need,” Capelli said.


Mazza said that, as long as there is a need for the program, the transportation department will continue to assist.


“It is growing, too, and we’re more than happy to deliver to families. I have 30-some drivers; if I have to put all of them on the road, we’ll put all of them on the road. As long as these kids are eating; that’s the most important thing,” Mazza said.


For her part, Triboletti expressed her gratitude.


“I really appreciate the transportation department, with all that they’ve been willing to do to help us feed the children in our community,” Triboletti said.


Chieco said that, regardless of hybrid or remote learning, the district will ensure that the needs of their students are being met.


“Although the buildings are not open, we continue to be a school community focusing on the health and well-being of our students. We look forward to the time when we can all be back in the classrooms again,” Chieco said.