NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, April 21st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.
Schools are closed across the nation, but not necessarily school cafeterias. Meal programs that are funded by federal dollars require that students receive meals, even if the schools are shuttered.
EICHER: But if the students aren’t at school, how does that work?
AUDIO: [SOUND OF BUS AND CHIT-CHAT]
One school district in Atlanta got creative. Here’s WORLD reporter Bonnie Pritchett with the story.
TOMMY BATES: Hello Andrew! How are you?
BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: For the last six years, Tommy Bates has driven a school bus for Gwinnett County Public Schools, in northeastern Atlanta, Georgia. It’s a post-retirement career. Ten years of retired life left him stir-crazy. Not sure what he wanted to do, Bates found inspiration while driving home one day.
TOMMY BATES: And there was a big sign in front of the school that said ‘Bus managers needed.’ And I thought to myself, I don’t know what that means but I guarantee ya, I can manage a bus. So, I called the number. And you could almost hear the lady smiling through the phone. She said, ‘Mr. Bates, we really appreciate your call but the bus manager also drives the bus.’..
AUDIO: [SOUND OF BUS ENGINE AND RADIO CHATTER]
Undeterred, he passed the training course and became Mr. Tommy, school bus driver.
During a typical school year, his day begins at 4–dark–30…
BATES: That’s the hardest part of the job is getting out of that bed. And once I get out of bed and get some water on my face, I’m totally ok…
Bates drives his Mini-Cooper to the bus lot and locates his 72-passenger vehicle. Bus number 27-74. He performs the routine vehicle safety checks then pulls out into the still-dark morning to pick up his first riders.
AUDIO: [SOUND OF SLOWING AND DOORS SWOOSHING OPEN]
But these days he’s not up before the sun. And the students he sees at each stop, never climb aboard his bus.
BATES: We are now at Norcross High School. And this is where we pick up the sandwiches.
Bates and his bus driving colleagues no longer pick up and deliver students to their schools. Instead, they pick up and deliver lunches to most of the district’s 181,000 students learning from home since March 16th. That’s when schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
BATES: Alright. We’ve got our sandwiches. We’ve got to get our milk though…OK. We’re getting ready to get to the bus now and getting ready to load up.
Bus drivers were paired up, given new routes and sent out to deliver meals. Students can also pick up lunches at designated schools. Since April 15th the district has distributed over 871,000 lunches.
BUS OCCUPANTS and KIDS: Sound of bus stopping and Good morning guys. Good morning. Thank you! You’re welcome sweetheart…
Bates said 90-percent of the kids express gratitude for the meal. On one April morning, a student sees chocolate milk among the day’s offerings.
PATRICIA RODRIGUEZ AND KIDS: Oh. Si! Si! Chocolate, yay! (Kid) Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate!…
That’s Patricia Rodriguez speaking Spanish to the kids and some of their parents at one of the stops. The mask she wears can’t muffle her hearty greetings. She and fellow bus driver Eddie Miller had never met Bates before the pandemic changed everything. Now they’re a team. Bates drives while Rodriguez and Miller hand out about 100 sack lunches and twice as many cartons of milk or juice each day.
VOICE ON RADIO: We’re three lunches short over here…
Their routine continues for 10 to 12 stops. A few times they’ve run out of meals before running out of students. A trip back to the school or a rendezvous with buses that have extras and Bates and crew return to finish their route.
On the route, Bates sees only the junior high students he takes to and from school. And he wonders how his other kids are doing. The last day he drove them home, each busload had a different mood. His elementary students acted as if summer break had arrived early. But a somber mood filled the bus of high schoolers.
BATES: All the uncertainty, the anticipation of that was not something they were looking forward to. I could hear them mumbling about that…
But does he worry about himself? Yes. Sort of.
At 83-years old, Bates understands he and his wife Katie are among those most vulnerable to potentially deadly complications should they contract the coronavirus. So, he takes what precautions he can, leaves the ‘what-ifs’ to God, and goes to work each day. Besides, he says he’s a “young” 83.
BATES: Good morning!
During the last few weeks Bates has noticed a change among some of his middle school students. Students who rarely acknowledged him during the daily bus ride now make eye contact and give a slight smile and mumble “Good morning.” Another greets him with a “Hi, Mr. Tommy!”
BATES: I’m seeing a difference in some of their attitudes. I think the tragedy of the virus has sort of sobered everybody to a new awakening, really.
Bates is aware of his potential influence on the students. He’s the first person associated with the schools the students encounter each day. And now, during the global pandemic, he and his partners may be the only ones.
BATES: I’ve got a ready smile and I’m a happy guy. And I’m an up guy. And they see that. And that’s just naturally who the Lord has made me. And the way I see my relationship with them, the hope that I see, is kinda like, kinda like a ripple on a lake. You know. You throw a rock in the lake and it creates ripples and the ripples go and go and go and go. You just don’t have any idea what influence you’re having. I hope it’s good.
AUDIO: [BUS PULLING AWAY]
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett.