Philly’s plan for displaced students falters due to push-back from rec center staff

According to the city, “unexpected staff shortages” prevented some of the 50 city rec centers from opening that had been planned as daytime activity hubs.

Philadelphia schools Superintendant William Hite (center) is joined by (from left) Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and Mayor Jim Kenney during a press conference at Tilden Middle School, where hundreds of bagged meals were prepared for students on March 16, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia schools Superintendant William Hite (center) is joined by (from left) Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and Mayor Jim Kenney during a press conference at Tilden Middle School, where hundreds of bagged meals were prepared for students on March 16, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s plan to take care of children during coronavirus school closures hit a snag Monday.

According to the city, “unexpected staff shortages” prevented some of the 50 city rec centers from opening that had been planned as daytime activity hubs.

A source close to Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration said about half of the city workers who were supposed to help distribute meals at schools and run rec center activities did not report to work Monday.

Officials advertised over the weekend that the recreation centers would be open from 10am to 6pm on weekdays — but by midmorning many of the facilities were locked.

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At one such site, East Passyunk Community Center in South Philadelphia, freshly printed signs were taped to the iron gate: “CLOSED, STAFF AT EMERGENCY MEETING.”

The city’s plan was reluctantly put in place after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered the closure of all public and charter schools for the next two weeks in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19.

City leaders created an 80-site network for children to receive some of the services schools normally provide. The network includes 30 schools where families can take two “grab and go” meals and 50 recreation centers were supposed to provide activities for any children between 10am-6pm.

Sources in AFSCME Local 47, which represents some recreation center workers, told WHYY they were dismayed the city’s plan made them a “daycare facility” as coronavirus spreads and officials urge the public to maintain social distance.

By late afternoon, the city nixed the idea of activities at rec centers.

“Effective tomorrow, Tuesday, March 17 all 50 recreation centers will be open from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. for meal distribution only,” said city spokesperson Maita Soukup. “Meals will be distributed at 3 p.m. and there will be no recreational activities.”

On Monday afternoon, city officials mandated the closure of all non-essential businesses, adding more questions to how families and students in the poorest big city in America would continue to get by in the coming days and weeks.

Slow morning

The day began as expected, with 30 schools across the city offering meals.

School district workers at McDaniel Elementary in Point Breeze began distributing bagged breakfasts and lunches at 9am. One sixteen-year-old was in line by 8:45, along with two younger siblings. The student, who attends Mastery Charter Schools Thomas campus, said his family normally relies on the free meals offered in school — and will likely need them even more now.

“When we went into Walmart yesterday there was barely anything there,” he said.  “It’s a lifesaver [for my siblings] because they need to eat.”

Overall, demand for meals was light at McDaniel, and across the city. Of more than 200,000 public school students, 2,000 breakfast and lunch meal sets were distributed Monday morning, according to Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy.

In Philadelphia, about a third of children live in poverty.

At George Sharswood Elementary School in the Witman section of South Philly, school district workers urged a parent to tell other families about the service as she picked up meals for her three school age children.

School district worker Patricia Miller, who distributed food Monday morning at McDaniel, attributed some of the low demand to lack of awareness.

“I don’t know if [families] know about this,” she said. “We don’t have our banners out.”

Miller said it probably doesn’t help that the day’s lunch offering is what’s known as the “space meal:” craisins, crackers, juice, and sunflower butter.

“It’s an emergency meal, from when we don’t have any real food,” Miller said. “Some of [the kids] would rather have a sandwich.”

Stephanie White was the first person to show up at Dr. Ethel Allen School in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia. She’s watching eight grandchildren because all three of her daughters have to work.

“They are with me. Nobody’s transporting back and forth. The children are in one spot,” White said.

Xiomara Diaz and her daughter leave William Hunter School in Kensington with free meals because of the coronavirus shutdown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Unique situation

Officials in West Philadelphia say they saw a small but steady trickle of students and families coming for free breakfasts and lunches. At the Alexander Hamilton school at 56th and Spruce, school staff said they handed out almost 100 meals in four hours.

Kyeema Worthem, a food service assistant with the district, said most students arrived on their own, without parents or guardians. She said the young people didn’t seem stressed, but they were definitely hungry.

“I haven’t really seen that many parents, it’s just kids walking up by themselves … 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.”

One of those students was a sixth grader at the Middle Years Alternative school. He said the free lunches will help him keep on top of his schoolwork. He’s got big plans for the next two weeks.

“I’m going to study – so I can get my grades up,” he said.

Daaiyah Boone waits at the doors of Tilden Middle School prepared to hand out hundreds of bagged lunches to students who rely on school meals during the coronavirus shut down. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

At Tilden Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia, school officials gave out about forty meals by mid-morning. Mayor Kenney and Superintendent William Hite met with the press to raise awareness of the free food.

Before news of low staff attendance at rec centers came to light, Kenney doubled-down on the importance of that part of the city’s plan.

“We have a unique situation in Philadelphia where a lot of kids are raised in single-parent households and parents have to work. We want to get something structured and safe as possible so they have something to do during the day … parents have to work. This is all a totally new experience for all of us and we’re going to do our best to see our way through it.”

One of those working moms is Crystal Rodriguez, who picked up meals for her three children at Hunter Elementary School in West Kensington on Monday.

Rodriguez normally works as a home health aide, but is missing work right now to care for her kids. She expects to take a big financial hit.

“Hopefully, by the summer time I’m able to catch up on everything,” she said. “Hopefully my job understands. But I know I’m not the only one that has kids.”

The city isn’t the only one trying to create a safety net for those jolted by the disruptions to daily life.

Just around the corner from Hunter Elementary, the New Kingdom Baptist Church raised money to provide hot meals twice a day for neighborhood children. Senior Pastor Daniel Jackson canvassed the neighborhood to let people know about the service.

“We’re figuring this out as we go,” he said. “But we just wanted to make sure we had food in place.”

Monday’s lunch menu consisted of french fries and chicken patties, lovingly deep fried by a pair of deaconesses in the church basement. The turnout was light — just a handful of neighborhood kids.

One of them was second-grader Avery Jones, who came with his mother and grandmother to help spread the word about the church’s new, impromptu meal service.

“We’re giving them food so they can live,” said Jones.

Jones’ grandma, Beverly Gray, expects more families to rely on free meals as the closures drag on. Toward the end of the month, she said, wallets tend to get lighter.

“Families will start coming in more,” Gray said. “Oh, this is just the beginning.”

Tom MacDonald contributed reporting.

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