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"We have never been here before": Congregations join schools, families in discerning how to help students

We have never been here before
Mary Frances Schjonberg

Congregations all over the Diocese of Newark have always helped students and parents navigate the challenges of returning to school each fall. The unpredictability of what “school” will look like this year means flexibility is the key to that ministry, according to those in the midst of connecting with their communities’ schools.

No two school districts’ plans are exactly alike, and everyone acknowledges that today’s plan could change depending on the course of the pandemic.

“There a lot of feeling out there that schools will end up closing for a period,” said Anne Mernin, the executive director of Toni’s Kitchen, at St. Luke’s, Montclair.

Toni’s Healthy Backpack Program, just one of its ministries, began as a way to bring healthy shelf-stable food and produce to students and families in the Montclair and Bloomfield school systems who qualify for free and reduced-price meals at school.

This summer, the ministry continued offering groceries to parents on the days that students who qualified for free or reduced-cost meals from the schools picked up their lunches that the schools were required to continue. Both the Bloomfield and Montclair districts designated certain schools as distribution points.

Bloomfield’s distribution continued as planned but, Montclair had low turnout at its school sites, Mernin said, so they decided to move the distributions to St. Luke’s. As the pandemic extended into the summer months, the district offered home delivery as well as the option to pick up food at the church.

“We just had groceries available for whoever wanted them,” Mernin said.

The ministry expanded to include the West Orange district as the school year ended and summer began. Food is available at two school parking lots. The Toni’s van arrives with groceries, produce, dairy and meat.

Mernin spoke August 12 with the Montclair superintendent who said the district’s weekly plan is for two days in school and three days online. Toni’s Kitchen will post an item in the district’s weekly newsletter publicizing its offer of home delivery or pick up of food.

“What I think is probably most effective is to build a home-delivery network that is more robust than it is right now, where people really understand that home delivery is something they can reach out and ask for,” Mernin said. That sort of network can prevent people having to stand in line for food in the midst of the pandemic, she said, adding that delivery can also help essential workers who may be working when distributions are happening.

Food is also an issue for Teaneck Public Schools students, 35 percent to 40 percent of whom are food-insecure, according to the Rev. Dr. Michelle White, vicar at Christ Church, Teaneck. Episcopalians there have helped in the past by providing holiday-centered events at the church that offer a meal as part of the program. Their food pantry is also working overtime to respond to increasing needs as more and more people lose their jobs, White said.

“The face of food insecurity has changed. It’s not all Black and brown people. There are white people. There are Filipinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders. It’s incredible,” she said. “People who have had really good jobs and but suddenly they have no jobs.” Many of those people do not know how to navigate the government programs such as SNAP benefits that do supply some help, White said, and they are hungry now.

“It is a wilderness,” she said. “We have never been here before.”

Other Episcopal congregations, the local Jewish community (details of that partnership are here) and businesses have all contributed to their food pantry. “We try to get food from wherever we find it,” she said.

When schools shut down this spring, the Teaneck high school distributed food and Christ Church supplemented their inventory with bread, milk and bakery donated by Stu Leonard’s, a grocery chain.

Christ Church, which is one block from Whittier Elementary School and shares its space with an early childhood center, has always been involved with smoothing the way for kids going back to school, White said. In the past, the members have filled backpacks with school supplies and then replenished those supplies during the year, along with grade-level books. The supplies, White said, help families counter the $50-75 per child cost of school-required supplies.

“It’s all chaotic,” White said. “I’m not sure if the same things will work anymore.”

Serving people who are suffering from the effects of the pandemic has changed people, she said.

“It’s a formation opportunity for us to serve. It changes us,” White explained. “I am overwhelmed with gratitude to God for the privilege and I tell the folks who volunteer that it is our privilege to do this. God is blessing us to allow us to be hands of Christ.”

Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund and a warden at St. Paul’s, Paterson, is another Episcopalian who sees her work as a calling. “To me it’s all about my Baptismal Covenant promise of respecting the dignity of every human being,” she said. “And, I take that a step further because what we’re doing is working for equity.”

The Paterson Education Fund, with offices at St. Paul’s, was formed 38 years ago to engage residents in the improvement of Paterson public schools. Four of the fund’s five staff members attend St. Paul’s.

Just after Gov. Phil Murphy said schools could begin the academic year with remote learning, the school board voted unanimously Aug. 12 to do that. The district will assess the situation by Oct. 15 with the goal of possibly reopening buildings on Nov. 1.

Grant said both decisions were “winners” for students and staff but acknowledged that they are not without their challenges. Some 12,000 of the district’s 28,000 students don’t have devices for remotely learning at home. Nearly 14,000 Chromebooks that the district bought in June with $3.4 million in federal CARES Act money arrived at the Newark airport where they were held up, she said. One of the companies that the manufacturer uses is among 11 companies in China that the U.S. Commerce Department has imposed trade sanctions against due to alleged human rights violations, according to a recent news report.

The district and community partners like the Fund are scrambling to help, Grant said. “We were promised late October but we understand the whole world is waiting for devices so we’re hopeful and yet we were planning for contingencies.”

One contingency is that the district will distribute to students all of the portable devices in its classrooms. However, that will still leave 4,000 students without equipment. The Paterson Education Fund plans to launch a campaign asking corporations to donate unused devices.

“It’s worth a shot because we’re at our wit’s end,” Grant said.

The group also is convening the child-care organizations in the city to look at the issue of parents of young children who must go to work during the day. Both Grant and the Rev. Deacon Erik G. Soldwedel, deacon in residence at St. Paul's, said the parish has offered its hall. Soldwedel envisions a sort of supervised physically distanced study hall for students. It would, he said, add structure to some young people’s days.

He and Grant said there are issues about supervisions and licensing but, Soldwedel said, “anything like that we can do, we would do it period.”

Soldwedel said that the parents of many Paterson students are not well-educated themselves and face the challenge of homeschooling their children. That challenge gets tougher as students progress in school, he added.

Grant said that one element of meeting all of these challenges is never lacking. “I find that we always get church members willing to help,” she said. “As the church in the community, we’re obligated to be a part of the community and to look after the welfare of members, particularly the smallest and the most vulnerable among us.”

To support these three ministries in feeding and assisting students and their families, simply visit and go to Area of Greatest Need: Food Pantries (second item from the top). Donations made from Aug. 19 through Sept. 8, 2020 will be divided among Toni's Kitchen at St. Luke's, Montclair; the food ministry of Christ Church, Teaneck; and the Paterson Education Fund associated with St. Paul's, Paterson.