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Coronavirus

'People need to be taken care of.' Berwyn, Cicero school districts provide thousands of meals to students

Cicero School District 99 employees Luz Valdez-Soto (left) and Adelaida Rodriguez prepare bagged breakfast and lunches for students at Warren Park Elementary School in Cicero. All schools in Illinois have been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Cicero School District 99 employees Luz Valdez-Soto (left) and Adelaida Rodriguez prepare bagged breakfast and lunches for students at Warren Park Elementary School in Cicero. All schools in Illinois have been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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BERWYN – On an early morning, Komensky Elementary School Principal Mariana Nicasio found herself alone inside her office. The soft, subtle scent from her essential oils diffuser, which sits on top of a shelf, slowly fills the room, combating an unsettling stillness.

It's about 8:30 a.m. on a Thursday, and normally, Nicasio would be surrounded by staff and students, who'd be shuffling up and down the hallways, hopping from one classroom to the next. But, ever since Gov. JB Pritzker ordered all public and private schools to close until the end of March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, this – the emptiness – has become Nicasio's new normal.

"I walk through the hallway," Nicasio said, pausing, "just seeing these empty hallways, makes me very, very sad. I've actually been a little emotional over the last couple of days."

"It's really sad, you know, to know that our kiddos are home," she continued. "Yes, we have different plans for them to learn and what-not, but they're still home, and they're not here having their structure, having that daily schedule that they're so used to."

Even Nicasio admitted that Pritzker's abrupt protocol pushed her to readjust. While she and many other educators are leaning on e-learning and online communication Nicasio said what gets lost in between – or per se, what she misses – is that personal interaction.

And, those feelings of loneliness and isolation only hit harder, when she remembers that, at this point, even a handshake could lead to grave consequences.

As the news of the COVID-19 outbreak continues, Nicasio realizes more every day that staying connected is important. She, along with her colleague, Irving Elementary School Principal Martin Stachura, view the grab-and-go meals as a simple, vital way to keep in touch with local families and to continue meeting their needs.

Since March 17, Komensky, Irving and the other seven schools that make up Berwyn South School District 100 have offered this on-site meal plan. From 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday until March 27, parents, guardians and students can pick up pre-packed breakfast and lunch bags. Just three days into this program, the district, which serves nearly 4,000 students, has provided more than 3,000 meals.

"People need to be taken care of," said Stachura, as he stood out front by Irving's entrance, ready to greet the next familiar face.

He had just briefly chatted with mothers like Jennifer Alicea and Kimberly Newcomb, both of whom live near the school and walked to grab meals for their children. A smile flashed across Stachura's face, when he saw Newcomb accompanied by her own, Brendan, Dylan and Carly Hajduch. Newcomb even wished Stachura a happy belated birthday.

Though their interaction was quick, it was easy to see that moment brought in a sense of comfort.

"This is good," Stachura said.

Over at Cicero School District 99, Superintendent Rodolfo Hernandez shared those same sentiments and added that as educators, their jobs are founded on love, compassion and kindness. That, alone, makes the practice of social distancing, difficult.

"We're caregivers," Hernandez said, adding that he's had to remind staff, especially those who are handing out food, to keep their distance, while they interact with each other and district families.

"Our lunch staff is wonderful," he said about District 99's culture of selflessness. "They want to cater to the car. They want to cater to the parents. We keep telling them, 'Please, don't. Just, you know, keep your distance.' But, the reality is that."

Earlier in the week, a small group of women stood outside Warren Park Elementary School. Equipped with gloves and masks, they asked parents, "Cuantos? Dos? Tres?" before going to the carts and reaching for the bags of food.

There are a total of 16 schools in District 99, serving a little under 11,000 students. Twelve of schools have become sites for the grab-and-go breakfast and lunch and are open from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, until March 27, as well.

"It's so hard to implement," Hernandez admitted, "because the needs are there, and we're providing a service, you know. We try to be as careful as we can, but the reality is that someone has to do it."

Because everything is changing day by day, hour by hour, Hernandez, just like Nicasio and Stachura, are focused on establishing normalcy and consistency for district families. That's their promise; that's their commitment.

Back in Berwyn, as Nicasio and Stachura wait to see how the following days will unfold, the two reflected on COVID-19 and thought back on a historic tragedy that happened 19 years ago. Nicasio and Stachura said that Sept. 11, 2001, pulled in that same silence of uncertainty, and the world changed from then on.

"We lived through the trauma of 9/11," Nicasio said. "We remember exactly where we were, what we were doing and what not. ... This has been several days, now, and it's like, who knows–that unknown of when this will go back to normal. It's really scary."

But, there's a sliver of light at the end of this tunnel that Nicasio, Stachura and Hernandez can see. There's still a tomorrow, and it's their job to think and plan ahead.

"What keeps me going is my staff – without a doubt," Nicasio said. "They're at home, and they're worried about their kiddos. We're making sure that we're keeping that connection with them. That's my hope, my light."

To learn more about the resources available through Berwyn South School District 100, visit www.bsd100.org. For more information on Cicero School District 99, visit www.cicd99.edu.

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