On March 13, when the order was issued from the Governor’s office to close schools statewide in response to the COVID-19 virus, the leadership at Siena Schools in Racine knew something had to be done quickly to make sure that students from all six of their schools have access to breakfast and lunch during this time of great uncertainty.

St. Catherine’s High School in Racine is one of two locations where Siena Catholic Schools are distributing free meals to students during the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted photo)

Making sure their students are well-fed and able to focus on the important work of their education is something that’s been important to Siena Catholic Schools since its foundation. Prior to the pandemic, all six schools offered their students lunch, but prior to 2017 only John Paul II offered a breakfast program, a deep need that Siena leaders saw in its other five schools. It’s a need that doesn’t go away just because school isn’t in session.

“We know that no matter what our learning environment looks like, we still have students and families who rely on us not only for their education but for many students, for multiple meals a day,” said Siena Schools Chief Academic Officer Todd Willems. “We don’t take that responsibility lightly.”

Days before the official order came through, when teachers and the administration were working together to form a remote learning plan for their elementary and high school students, they were also working to do everything they could to continue to provide meal service to their students, anticipating that with parents possibly out of work, the need would become much more urgent in the coming weeks and months.

Taher, the food service vendor Sienna uses, was anxious to give families that assurance.

“This has been a total team effort,” Willems said. Karen Dominguez, the food service director at Taher, and Lisa Corrao, Taher Inc.’s district manager, worked long hours with Chris Joch, the director of operations at Siena Catholic Schools of Racine, to put together a plan that went into effect within 48 hours of the order to shut down. The plan ensures all students younger than 18 have access to breakfast and lunch every day.

Education assistants and support staff immediately began volunteering to distribute the meals in a drive-through system so families don’t have to get out of their cars or have contact with volunteers.

“We’re honoring the spirit and intent of the governor’s orders while also providing meal service for families that we know are in need of that,” Willems said.

Bagged meals are being handed out from 8 to 9 a.m. on Monday and Wednesday at John Paul II Academy, and 11 a.m. to noon on Monday and Wednesday at St. Catherine’s High School. Students receive two days worth of meals on Monday and three days’ worth on Wednesday. So far, volunteers are averaging about 150 meals served each day.

Siena Catholic Schools are also committed to continuing to learn with their students virtually throughout this pandemic. Founded on the belief that children have a right to learn, it is Siena’s mission to continue to develop their God-given intellect regardless of whether or not they can meet together in a traditional classroom environment.

“We’re trying to be mindful to not make the work we’re giving out so challenging that parents and kids can’t do all of it,” Willems said. “We want to continue to develop their learning in a way that’s sustainable and doesn’t burn our kids, parents or staff out.”

During this time when so much has changed for students across the country and world, it’s Siena’s hope to be mindful that even though they can’t navigate this unexpected shutdown perfectly, they can put forth a perfect effort to love the children put into their care.

Willems said parents have responded to the continued meal service and remote learning with overwhelming gratitude. “We’ve gotten so many ‘thank you’s’ and seen the relief on more than one face.” He said everything they’ve been able to do in the past few weeks is a testament to the power of collaboration and a humbling reminder we all belong to each other.