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Mayor Kenney and Superintendent William Hite were at Tilden Middle School on Monday morning (Photo: Bill Hangley)

Bill Hangley / The Notebook

District, city officials still working out how to handle the mass closure of schools

The goal is to keep nearly 200,000 students safe, learning, and fed -- not an easy task.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With public schools closed and a growing number of businesses and public services restricted to slow the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus, officials from the City of Philadelphia and School District are working to confront the urgent needs of students even as they start to plan for the longer-term needs of the District.

Turnout was light but steady on Monday at the District’s 30 “grab-and-go” food stations, where officials said they hoped to see a steady increase in demand as word gets out in the neighborhoods.

At the Add B. Anderson Elementary School in West Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood, school staff said they served up almost 100 meals in four hours, many of them to young people out on their own looking for a meal.

“I haven’t really seen that many parents, it’s just kids walking up by themselves,” said Kyeema Worthem, a District food services assistant.

“They didn’t seem stressed but they really wanted their lunch, so I guess it’s really a good thing that we’re still open for some kids to come in and eat.”

By the end of the day, officials said the District had distributed 1,949 breakfast and 1,949 lunch meals across the city.

At Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney thanked the “dedicated” school employees who showed up to help feed and support students. He said he’s hoping students use the city recreation centers as a place to find constructive activities. Reports on Monday of absent rec center staff and closed buildings do not bode well for the availability of those services, but Kenney said that the situation is unprecedented and rapidly changing and that the city will do its best to adjust on the fly.

“It’s a very difficult time. It’s the first day of this,” Kenney said. “We’ll analyze it, work out the kinks, and try to make it as effective as possible moving forward.”

City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said that any move by state or federal officials to force city rec centers to close would be “devastating.” If city services shut down, neighbors will have to help find ways to keep young people out of trouble and engaged with learning, Johnson said.

“Parents, family members, and community members have to step up,” Johnson said.

“I grew up in an environment where it took a village. It wasn’t just my mother and father … it was neighbors down the street that looked out for me when I wasn’t at school. We really have to come together as a community and as a city right now and look out for one another.”

Among the possibilities, Johnson said, is that the District and local lawmakers will have to find a way to deliver meals to young people who can’t leave the house while their parents work.

“If parents are still working, the children are home – in the house,” Johnson said. “We may have to reconfigure how we engage with the community, maybe come up with a volunteer system where we can deliver these breakfasts and lunches to targeted families.”

City and District officials could work together to “strategically target” the neediest families, potentially using public assistance rolls to find addresses and phone numbers, Johnson said.

Also on hand at Tilden was Superintendent William Hite, who said that instructional packets would soon be available “for every student.” Packets could be available as early as Tuesday, Hite said, but distribution details are still being worked out. The District can’t rely on online distribution and must use paper packets, he said, because so many students lack reliable access to computers and the internet.

“Some counties can send home work virtually,” said Hite. “But some of our families don’t have the tools to do that, and even with the tools, don’t have the internet access.”

Hite said that the District is just beginning to think about how to handle its many non-academic public obligations, including its regular board meetings and the strategic planning meetings that are part of the Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR) process.

“All of the meetings that were going to be held on School District properties have been postponed,” said Hite.

The Board of Education will make its own announcements about upcoming meetings, Hite said, including this Thursday’s committee meetings and the March 26 action meeting.

“We’re talking later today to talk about how those meetings will continue,” said Hite, adding that it will probably be “some sort of virtual process.”

The coronavirus closures have effectively halted the ongoing CSPR process, which was designed to produce proposals for reorganizing clusters of neighborhood schools into more efficient K-12 networks. Neighborhood committees were slated to meet multiple times in the coming weeks to discuss possible changes and whittle down the many options. The CSPR team’s goal was to unveil final proposals by May, but Hite said that the whole process could well be delayed into next year.

“If we need to, we will,” Hite said.

Such decisions are important but “secondary” for the moment, Hite said. What’s most urgent is “being able to feed children, and make sure they’re safe, and have some educational opportunities even though they’re home,” he said.

Meanwhile, back at Anderson, Worthen said she hopes the word gets out in the neighborhood about the grab-and-go meals. Students aren’t shy about asking for food – “not at all,” she said – but they need to know that the meals are there, and word of mouth will be the best advertising. She and her colleagues tell everyone who shows up to “come back tomorrow – and bring a friend!”

But once they’re fed, Worthen said, she hopes students can find other city services that will keep them out of trouble. “They should still be learning – using their time, not running the streets,” said Worthen. “Libraries and stuff should be open.”

At the moment, they are not, observing the recommendation against groups of more than 50 people gathering in one place.