It’s finally here.
After months of debating and guessing and stressing, the first day of school for the 200,000-plus students in Philadelphia arrives this week. Of course, it won’t look like the first day of school: There will be no sea of teens animating our SEPTA commutes with their gossip, no uniformed kids taking first-day-of-school pics on the front stoop with their giant backpacks and nervous smiles.
But this September and beyond, schools will need lots of support to make the most of this very strange year. We spoke to teachers, administrators, parents, and other leaders for tips on making the 2020-21 school year safe, joyful and successful.
“This is gonna take everyone working together,” says School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite. And he’s right.
How to help schools in Philadelphia in 2020
Schedule your children’s flu shots
The world is bananas right now. With so much out of our control, protecting children (and those around them) from the flu is one thing you can reliably, safely do. The CDC recommends that everyone over age six months get vaccinated (with few exceptions). Call your child’s pediatrician or health care provider today (many medical practices already have their supply of vaccines) and find out how and where they recommend your child get vaccinated.
By now you’ve heard about PHLConnectED, the citywide plan to get wifi to all students. But how to actually take advantage of it? Families of K-12 students without broadband internet access can reach out to United Way’s 2-1-1 hotline for information; you’ll be able to speak to a United Way representative, who’ll help determine if you’re eligible for the program, and get you going on next steps for getting the connection into your home. Already have broadband? Spread the word to others.
Get support—in your language
Jenna Monley, executive director of the Office of Family and Community Engagement, wants to make sure families don’t feel alone in navigating the new school year. “We have a plethora of opportunities for families to be able to build their capacity and support their child with digital learning, Chromebooks and how best to communicate with their teachers,” she says. Support is available from District experts in English and the District’s top nine languages. Go here for details.
Be a volunteer reader
“We will be offering the program 100 percent virtually via Zoom [and] are absolutely looking for volunteers,” says Johniece R. Foster, Director of Philly Reading Coaches for the City of Philadelphia Office of Children and Families.
If you want to nurture literacy and an early love of reading among our City’s youngest students, check out details here. You can also donate to or volunteer with literacy programs like Reach Out and Read (ROAR) and Read by 4th.
Mentor Mighty kids
Mighty Writers, the nonprofit that helps kids find and share their voices through writing, has expanded its community-support efforts during the pandemic, and welcomes volunteers in all kinds of roles. You can apply to be an online 1:1 writing mentor; help at MW’s food distribution sites once a week; read and respond to student contest entries; gather, organize or personally create Mighty Fun Packs for back to school and more. Get in touch here.
Register for childcare and Access Centers
The City announced that, starting on September 8, it will provide a number of supervised, Wi-Fi-enabled access centers where working parents without childcare can bring their K-6 students. Taking advantage of the sites requires pre-registration and spots will be limited, so call 215-709-5366 to register as soon as possible. And Philadelphia Early Learning Resource Center (ELRC) can help you find a childcare program and apply for a subsidy. Visit philadelphiaelrc18.org o
Nurture social-emotional learning
“This is even more important now, with the added stress families have been under,” says Kelsey Ruane at William Penn Foundation. For families of young children, she recommends Conquering Kindergarten, a resource created by the Penn Child Research Center at Penn’s Graduate School of Education with the School District of Philadelphia to help support kindergarteners and their families with the transition to school.
For mental health support, the School District has its HopeLine for students and families, and the City’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) has the #mindPHL website with resources for all residents.
“Covid-19 and the protests over systemic racism in our country and the related economic fallout have created new pressures on the School District’s budget and new demands for District services,” says Donna Frisby-Greenwood, president and CEO of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.
She encourages the community to go online to the Philly FUNDamentals platform, where individual schools post the things they need most. “Philly FUNDamentals gives you a chance to give directly to a school and know how your contributions will be used.
Additionally, you can support an academic recovery plan that will pilot learning pods in low-income communities for those K-5 students that are unable to stay at home during the day and/or need additional academic support.”
Become an advocate
There are countless nonprofits, civic groups and community coalitions rallying for our children’s education. Make this the year you join your school’s parent group, attend an online school board meeting, or throw your support behind endeavors like Center for Black Educator Development, PA Schools Work, Pre-K for PA, Start Strong PA, Childhood Begins at Home, Philadelphia School Partnership, or any other number of causes that are dear to your family.
Get out the youth vote
We at The Citizen love voting the way some other staffs love puppies or rainbows or office ping pong. It’s our jam. We cheerlead endlessly for VoteThatJawn and Philly Youth Vote!, two of the many initiatives focused on getting first-time voters to register.
Looking for your own ways to help get out the vote this fall? If your child will be 18 on Election Day, encourage him or her to work at the polls. “Believe it or not, there’s no School District policy for voter registration and most students are never given the opportunity to register in school. This is one reason why youth voter turnout is so low, so we need to ask and guide them through the process, including voting by mail, and finding their polling places,” says Central High School teacher and super-voting-advocate Thomas Quinn.
Quinn’s once again asking candidates to join virtual social studies classes in the School District, to be interviewed by students. “These interviews will be simulcast by the School District and the Committee of Seventy. Youth need to know who’s on the ballot and what they stand for, and candidates need to hear the concerns of youth.”
P.S., says Quinn: Tell students to enter the @VoteThatJawn #DanceThatJawn TikTok challenge.
Maureen Boland, a ninth grade English teacher at Parkway Center City Middle College, shared this wise insight, which needs no editing on our part:
“Our students will need for us to recognize that not only are they coming to us after a summer of enduring a pandemic, they are also enduring an ever-worsening epidemic of gun violence. We also need to recognize that our students are coming of age in one of the most turbulent and unpredictable times in American history and that they are different than students who have come before them. They are very sophisticated. They are very expressive, and they learn very quickly.
We need to acknowledge and respond to those differences in our teaching. Teachers in Philly are generally very flexible by nature. You have to be to work with so many needs, and so few resources. We are going to need to stretch even more than we were already stretching. But the good news is [that] our students are also incredibly quick to adapt. We will serve them most effectively if we see that in them.”
Create (realistic) expectations
Margarita Hernández, senior director of early childhood programs for Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), echoes Boland’s emphasis on empathy. “Philadelphia families are facing new challenges as the pandemic forces so many students to begin the school year remotely. We know it seems daunting,” she says.
The early learning team at APM put together these tips:
- Create a workspace area for your child to learn from home with minimum distraction
- Set routines, including a regular time to go to bed, wake up and eat breakfast
- Set expectations, and continually talk to your children about their responsibilities at home
- Look for support if you need it—parents are struggling, and deserve help too.
- Above all, be flexible.
“We are living a moment [in which] changes are happening at every hour,” Hernandez emphasizes. “Always remember that if something does not work today, there is a new day tomorrow.”
Support APM’s work here.