Free school supplies and measles shots coming to Philly neighborhoods on bus tour

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite (left) and President of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, Lorina Marshall-Blake (right). (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite (left) and President of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, Lorina Marshall-Blake (right). (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Big blue school buses are coming to Philadelphia neighborhoods this summer.

Monday, August 9 through August 27, the buses, staffed by the School District of Philadelphia and the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, will provide information to students and families about the upcoming school year, including COVID-19 safety measures. The program will also distribute free backpacks, school supplies, as well as offer free state-mandated immunizations for diseases including tetanus, polio, hepatitis-B and measles.

District workers will also help families register their children for pre-Kindergarten through 12th grades, and sign up for Parent Portal accounts.

The buses are meant to meet families “where they are,” said Superintendent William Hite, and connect with school community members who might not receive information through the district’s standard modes of communication.

“We wanted to make sure that we were getting that information out into communities that, in many cases, have been most impacted both by the virus and who will not venture too far away from their communities in order to get information,” said Hite.

Hite said it’s also about helping families who may still feel leery about going back to school during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We also know that families and students are feeling the impact of the pandemic and may have more questions this year than ever before,” said Hite. “We want families and students to be aware of the planned supports and feel comfortable with the layers of safety we have in place.”

The district will park the buses outside community hubs like parks, recreation centers, ShopRite stores, schools, and churches in 31 neighborhoods across the city.

The bus tour is funded by  a $150,000 grant from the Independence Blue Cross Foundation. The district is poised to distribute over 8,000 backpacks loaded with school supplies like rulers and writing utensils.

President of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, Lorina Marshall-Blake, said the buses are meant to reduce disparities in health and information access across the city.

“We know that neighborhood-by-neighborhood, even block-by-block, people’s access to health care and information can be very different,” said Marshall-Blake. “If you’ve seen one block, you’ve seen one block, and we have to adjust and customize.”

The buses will also have Spanish literature and Spanish translators available for families, along with “any other languages that will likely be in those particular areas,” said Hite.

The bus tour is just the beginning of an ongoing commitment to re-engage families and students in school, Hite said.

According to Hite, kindergarten enrollment is up from last school year, but he’s still awaiting final counts for the fall. The district, like many across the country, has work to do to connect with the many students who attended school far less regularly during virtual classes.

“It’s going to take us a while to actually re-engage all the individuals that we’ve lost,” said Hite. “This is going to be something that we will continue to do throughout the school year to find individuals who are no longer engaged but still in our communities and still should be attending our schools.”

Virtual Learning

During the district’s weekly press conference on Thursday, Hite was asked if the district is preparing for the possibility of going fully virtual, amid rising COVID-19 cases across the city and state.

“At the moment, we are not preparing to go all-virtual,” said Hite. The district is following guidance by the Center for Disease Control and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to open full in-person learning.

Families who want to enroll in the district’s virtual learning option, the Philadelphia Virtual Academy, have until Friday, August 13.

Hite said he did not yet have the numbers for how many students have signed up for the fully virtual option so far.

Continued backlash against the district’s new bell schedule

Ten state representatives from Philadelphia released a letter on Tuesday, August 3, asking Hite to reconsider the district’s new bell schedule, which starts most high schools earlier and middle and elementary schools later.

The schedule counters guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says teens need more sleep and should start school later.

While Hite said the district is “interested in hearing all of the comments and concerns about [the bell schedule],” he said has not yet seen the letter.

Hite added that the district is providing resources to schools to offer before and after care for children, with money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, part of the federal CARES Act.

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