The Little School that Could

A district steps into the void to serve an impoverished community



As Humboldt County school districts stepped up to continue feeding their students amid the COVID-19 shutdown, one of its smallest districts in one of its poorest areas decided it needed to do much more.

Peninsula Union School District has one small school house that sits tucked between dunes in Samoa, serving 45 students, 95 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced cost school meals, meaning they live in or near poverty. Superintendent-Principal Lark Doolan, a Bay Area transplant and former special education teacher who took over the district in 2016, said that as soon as he and staff learned schools would be shuttered, they realized it would have a potentially devastating, multi-layered impact on some families.

Like many districts, the first thought was of food insecurity. Because of the number of families on the peninsula living in poverty, Doolan said the school serves three meals a day — breakfast, lunch and supper — to its students, plus snacks. For a family with four students in the school, that's 60 meals a week.

"That's huge for a family that's already living in poverty," Doolan said.

So as the district's three teachers pivoted toward distance learning and virtual classrooms, much of the rest of the district's staff of 13 began working to get food to families in need. And the school's theme of equity soon took on a new meaning as staff saw there were other barriers to students maintaining health and education while sheltering in place.

First and foremost, many of the students didn't have computers — or even internet access — at home, Doolan said, explaining that staff reached out to each family to assess its needs, eventually delivering Chromebooks and iPads to some and setting up Wi-Fi hotspots for others.

"Equity is so huge — If we're offering online learning for some students but not for others, that really goes against the values of our district," Doolan said, adding that staff also soon realized that some families used to having kids at school and after care from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily would face added costs beyond food, as the kids would be using more of a host of household items, from hand soap to toilet paper.

But the district couldn't just send supplies like soap and paper towels home to families, as it could constitute a gift of public resources. So the district solicited donations and got $13,000 in funding. From there, it launched a daily door-to-door meal delivery service that really serves as a point of contact.

"As we go around, we do daily check ins on families. 'What do you need?' Then, the next day, we deliver those supplies," Doolan explained, adding that needs have stretched from enrichment baskets with art supplies and games to connections with counseling and other services.

Before long, the entire non-teaching staff was repurposed for the effort, helping with food services and an administrative assistant fielding orders from families. They researched best practices and set up decontamination systems and ways to maintain social distancing during deliveries, which always includes masks and gloves. Then one day, during a delivery, one of the school's students asked a question that resonated: "What about our neighbors?"

Poverty is pervasive and services are scant on the peninsula, so Doolan and his staff decided it was the school's responsibility to step into the void and take care of its community. Volunteers canvassed neighborhoods looking for anyone over the age of 65 or with a compromised immune system who was in need of services. The district is now distributing about 150 meals a day, as well as groceries and a host of other supplies, while checking in on a plethora of households.

"There really aren't a lot of institutions on the peninsula, so we saw the potential to use our infrastructure at the school to serve the broader needs of the community," Doolan said. "At school, we teach about uplifting people. We talk about using our words and our actions to help our neighbors. This is an opportunity to teach our kids what it means to be in an emergency and what it means to embody those values in the community."

The district will continue providing these services as long as its able but Doolan said it will need additional funding to continue them through the duration of the shelter in place order. He asked anyone willing to help to send a check to the district office (Peninsula Union School District, PO Box 175, Samoa, CA 95564) with "COVID support" written in the memo line.

"We want to continue providing these services for as long as we can but that really depends on donations," Doolan said.

And asked how his team of 13 school workers turned cooks, delivery drivers and outreach coordinators is holding up, Doolan said their dedication is remarkable, adding that they voluntarily worked Cesar Chavez Day — a district holiday — and have asked to work through spring break.

"I'm deeply moved by their dedication," he said. "I could not be happier with the team that I'm working with."

— Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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