Philly school district starts mental health hotline for students and families

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite speaks at a city coronavirus briefing. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This article originally appeared on The Notebook.

The School District of Philadelphia on Monday will launch a mental health hotline for children and families called Philly HopeLine that will be staffed by counselors from the Uplift Center for Grieving Children, a nonprofit that grew out of the bereavement center at St. Christopher’s Hospital.

“In speaking with families and students over the past few months, they’ve shared how difficult this period of time it is for them,” said Dr. Jayme Banks, the District’s director of trauma-informed school practices. “They have shared they feel isolated, disconnected, that they have worries about all of the unknowns. Some of our students have shared they have been feeling disappointed regarding activities or events they have not been able to partake in.”

Philly Hopeline can be accessed at 1-833-PHLHOPE every Monday-Friday from noon to 9 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

Uplift has had a relationship with the District for 20 years, said Meghan Szafran, its director of school and community services, offering grief services and post-crisis support.

“We know that there is a need for mental health and emotional support at this time when kids are isolated, families are isolated. There’s a lot of worry and anxiety, and a lot of grief for things that are lost, whether its resources, safety, security, routine, or death of a loved one, which is still happening,” she said. “So we will be able to provide emotional support for children and families. They’ll be able to reach out if they’re feeling lonely, if they’re feeling anxious, if they’re just not sure where to turn.”

Superintendent William Hite spoke about the program on a call with press on Thursday. He said the cost of the program is being underwritten by a donor, but did not specify the amount.

The mental health service is in addition to hotlines that the District is operating in 10 languages for families who need help with basic information like meal distribution and with navigating digital learning, including tech support for District-distributed Chromebooks.

The District has also launched a virtual Family Academy that provides webinars for families on several subjects, including how to use Google Classroom and managing stress.

The Family Academy was first launched in 2017 with seminars that families could attend in person, but has now been reformatted to virtual webinars “as a way to stay engaged with families,” Hite said.

Assessing week one

On the press call, Hite said that next Monday the District would have a full report on participation during its first week of official online learning. The District spent a month of ramping up its digital capacity by developing guidelines, training teachers, and producing digital workbooks for every grade and subject before starting to take attendance, introduce new material, and give students grades on May 4.

On the subject of grading, Hite reiterated that the intent is to keep students engaged and, as much as possible, from backsliding in their progress, and not necessarily about the quality of the work they complete.

The District has kept open the third marking period; the material that started this week is what would have been offered in the fourth marking period.

“It is graded, and the grades could be anything, and we talked a lot about this, from participation, to just turning things in, to texting a teacher, to sending a picture of themselves working on an assignment, in some cases just logging in,” he said.

Similarly, methods for determining attendance vary, he said, and can include texting with a teacher as well as logging in to Google Classroom and completing work. So far, he said, attendance across the city has varied widely, with one area reporting higher attendance rates than when schools were open while other areas do not come near to accounting for the number of their students.

Later, when asked how the District is measuring its success right now – given the absence of standardized testing or any other more typical measures – he said that for him it is mostly about reducing regression and keeping up connections with students.

It is already known that students’ skills atrophy during the summer, a phenomenon called “summer slide.” This year, that problem will undoubtedly be worse.

“Because we’ve been out of school since March 15, that regression could actually start a lot earlier, which could mean that children could actually go backwards,” Hite said. “So we’re trying to reduce that to the best extent possible by making sure we’re covering previously covered material and introducing new material.”

But even more important, he said, “success for me is if we are able to make contact with children during this period of time, and if we’re able to determine if they are well [and] have what they need in terms of the basic necessities…For me, this is more about us making connection with children who are experiencing something they haven’t experienced before.”

He noted that many districts around the country have chosen to go pass/fail for the remainder of the year, an approach that emphasizes that what’s important now is the maintenance of connection and the nurturing of relationships “so that [students] don’t feel lost. For me, that is success.”

Hite said that the District is still working on contacting students and their families, and so far some 500 students are basically unaccounted for.

These are students who have never been in contact with teachers or other staff since schools closed, either through phone or text or by logging on to the District’s site for classwork. Some families have picked up Chromebooks, but never used them, he explained.

Many families move frequently during the year, and the District and schools need to scramble to maintain contact. “We don’t want to lose families in this process,” he said. The District is working with various city agencies like the Department of Human Services and the Office of Children and Families on this endeavor.

An unknown number of families still don’t have internet access, Hite said, disclosing that the District has purchased 2,500 hotspots at $185 each, that are good for a year. They are being distributed on a first-come, first-served basis to needy families.

But the so-called “digital divide” is “not a problem that the District is going to be able to solve given our financial forecast,” Hite said, referencing the loss of tax revenue caused by the pandemic. Districts across the country are working on the issue of internet access, he said.

Finally, Hite suggested that snow days might be a thing of the past. Because students now have the technology, and teachers have training in virtual learning, it is now possible to continue learning from home instead of having a day off.

In addition, he said, it could change the District’s approach to doing environmental cleanup in its aging buildings, which this year, before the pandemic, caused the loss of weeks of instruction in some schools for required work on cleaning up asbestos, lead paint, or other building hazards.

“Nobody’s talking about the environmental stuff…we see that differently as well,” he said. “More people have technology that didn’t before.”

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