Little Falls bus driver who delivered meals now awaits students' return

A person talking on the phone while sitting in the driver's seat on a bus.
School bus driver Melanie Van Alst works the phone along with the horn, trying to get the attention of a student to collect their meal during a drop-off run in Little Falls in March. In the early days of the pandemic, districts worked to meet some of the needs schools typically fill, as students were sent home for their first round of distance learning.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News file

For students in Little Falls, Minn., who were abruptly sent home, isolated from friends and teachers this spring, Melanie Van Alst's familiar face was a welcome relief.

Melanie Van Alst is a school bus driver in Little Falls, Minn.
Melanie Van Alst
Courtesy of Melanie Van Alst

She knows every student along her rural school bus route, which stretches down long gravel roads and across wind-blown farm fields in central Minnesota.

Back in March, when COVID-19 forced schools to shut down, Van Alst delivered meals — and sometimes homework — to homebound students who attend Little Falls Community Schools. She greeted each student with a honk, a smile and a friendly wave.

It's been a tumultuous year since then.

Little Falls students started learning in the classroom when they returned to school from summer break, and Van Alst was back to shuttling them to and from school. But in November, when COVID-19 cases spiked in the region, the district switched to distance learning, and bus drivers were no longer needed.

Van Alst said the instability has been difficult.

“I'm sure a lot of parents were just like, ‘What the heck am I gonna do now?’” she said. “And students were scared and worried and [wondering], ‘When am I going to get to see my friends?’ And, ‘I'm used to having my teacher each day.’ And that structure was all gone."

The Little Falls school district still offers meals for students. But now, families pick them up at designated locations.

A person holds a note written by a child.
A young student made a card for school bus driver Melanie Van Alst to show her appreciation for the home-delivered meals in March.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News file

"I miss the kids so much.” she said. “I still text some of them, and I've gotten messages and calls from some mom saying, ‘Hey, when can we meet to do a little gift exchange?’ Or little kids want to call come by and see me …  because they miss me, too. And it's so heart-wrenching."

Van Alst has been driving for Palmer Bus Service for six years. She said the company is continuing to pay its employees during the shutdown. In the meantime, she's working at her second job in Brainerd, Minn., and she recovered from a bout with COVID-19 earlier in the fall.

Little Falls preschool and elementary students are scheduled to school for in-person learning on Jan. 11.

Van Alst said she plans to be behind the wheel.

A person walking down a dirt road with a school bus in the background.
Suzie Rudolph walks out to hand deliver a meal to a waiting Little Falls student in March. Rudolph and a small group drove in the bus along its normal route and delivered 44 meals as schools close amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News file

Looking back, looking ahead: As 2020 comes to a close, several MPR News reporters have been checking back in with people they met earlier in the pandemic — about how their lives have changed, and about what they're hopeful for in the new year.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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