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Free lunches being served despite school cancellations

Terry Moore (far right) distributes lunch to Ayanna Montgomery, 7. Although the Riverview Gardens Schools were cancelled again on Tuesday, Aug. 19 due to the protests in Ferguson, they continued with their free lunch program, delivering food out of a truck. Also pictured from left to right is Wayne Hashag, 3, Jazmyne Moszee, 11, and Raimey Moszee, 13. Photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte, cfletes-boutte@post-dispatch.com

FERGUSON • With continued school cancellations in three districts, teachers spent Tuesday trying to overcome the heartache they’ve felt since chaos erupted over Michael Brown’s shooting death. Many of them did it by reaching out to their students. Others cleaned up the mess in Ferguson.

Dozens of teachers organized learning activities at public libraries and in a church hall, attracting children from throughout the Ferguson-Florissant School District, where the start of the school year has been delayed by more than a week so far. Two hundred more cleaned up debris on West Florissant Avenue, where protesters and police had clashed the night before.

And inside school cafeterias, some worked to provide free lunches to children, most of whom rely on school for something to eat.

“As teachers, we want to build up our community, not tear it down,” said Remy Bryant, a Jennings High School biology teacher wearing gloves and filling a trash bag. She was cleaning up with about 200 teachers, principals and staff — nearly everyone who works for the Jennings district.

The unrest resulting from late-night clashes between protesters and police is taking a toll on the education of more than 20,000 students in north St. Louis County. As of Tuesday, children in the Riverview Gardens School District have missed two days of school. In Jennings, it's three. In Ferguson-Florissant, children have missed four and will be out the rest of the week.

Several other schools have missed days, including North Tech High School and Ackerman Elementary School — both in Florissant.

For many children, the cancellations haven’t brought the joy that comes from snow days. Roderick Eldred has faced disappointment every morning when his mother has awakened him. For nearly a week she’s had to tell him he can’t go to kindergarten.

For Michael Hubbard, it’s been a similar story. “I put my clothes on, and my sister told me I didn’t have school until Monday,” the fifth-grader said. “The first day of school is always awesome.”

District officials say the cancellations mostly are out of concern for the safety of children and transportation issues, even though most of the schools aren’t near where the rioting and clashes have taken place since a police officer shot and killed Brown.

The situation has put a strain on some working parents, who have had to arrange child care on the fly. It’s left students disappointed they can’t see friends and meet teachers. It’s left teachers anxious, concerned about the impact all of these lost days might have on learning. The Missouri education department has not determined if the days will need to be made up later in the year.

“Our kids need to be back in school. They need to be learning,” said Carrie Pace, an elementary school teacher who turned a large meeting room in the Ferguson Library into a place where students were working on long division, reading skills, and various crafts.

Pace said she’s concerned about the emotional toll the past 11 days has had on children in her school, Walnut Grove Elementary. When asked how she’s holding up, Pace began to cry.

At a table nearby, Allisha Luster made jewelry with beads and plastic thread. Allisha is about to start fourth grade in Ferguson-Florissant. She said she’s eager to meet her teacher.

“It brings home the emotional impact of what’s going on in our community,” said Rashonda Luster, her mother, as she watched her daughter. “Now it’s affecting our kids’ education. They need to be back in their routines … . We are ready for peace.”

KIRKWOOD MAY PITCH IN

The school closures in Riverview Gardens prompted several Kirkwood parents and church leaders to meet Tuesday to form a plan. Whenever Riverview Gardens is closed, buses do not transport about 250 transfer students to Mehlville or Kirkwood, where they attend school. If unrest leads to more lost days in Riverview Gardens, the group discussed driving their own vans to pick up the children to prevent them from missing more school.

“We consider these families our families,” said Becky Edwards, a parent at the meeting at Kirkwood Baptist Church. She knows many Kirkwood parents eager to help, she said.

The unexpected free time has left many children with little to do. At Wellspring Church in Ferguson, volunteers said finding activities for older kids was difficult. They were looking for help and ideas as they opened their hall each day this week for activities, counseling and lunch.

“I just feel sad. These kids need to be in school,” said Julie Hoener, a fifth-grade teacher at Central Elementary.

Ferguson parent Yolanda Harris said she’s struggling to keep her children from spending hours in front of the television. Summer programs are over. And she’s not comfortable with them playing outside so close to where the violence has taken place.

“It’s hard to say why you can’t go outside and ride your bike,” Harris said.

With school out, many educators also are concerned that low-income students will go hungry, particularly at schools with high-poverty populations.

Today through Friday, Ferguson-Florissant will provide sack lunches at five elementary schools for any student in the district. The schools are Airport, Duchesne, Griffith, Holman and Wedgwood.

On Tuesday, Riverview Gardens provided lunch to 300 children. Jennings also opened up its school cafeterias.

Chavonne Robinson brought her three sons — two of them school-aged — to Woodland Elementary School in Jennings, where they sat in the cafeteria and ate chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes and apples. She said even if her children can’t be in school, she wants them thinking about school.

“School is still thinking about you,” she said. “It’s thinking about us, the whole family.”

One of her sons, Leon Gibson, said he had ironed his pants the night before, hoping to go to Jennings High School, where he started last week as a freshman.

“We’re missing all our extracurricular activities,” he said.

When asked how he felt about missing school, Leon’s fifth-grade brother, Dushaun Chisom, made a sad face.