District starts mental health hotline for students and families

Concerns about the effects of isolation on families led to the partnership with Uplift. Other possible results of the pandemic include the loss of snow days and a different approach to building cleanup.

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

The School District of Philadelphia will launch a mental health hotline called Philly HopeLine on Monday for children and families. It 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 (1-833-745-4673) every Monday-Friday from noon to 9 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

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

“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 reporters 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 its hotlines for families who need help with basic information such as meal distribution and with navigating digital learning, including tech support for District-distributed Chromebooks. The District is operating these hotlines in 10 languages.

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

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

Assessing week one

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

On the subject of grading, Hite reiterated that the intent is to keep students engaged and, as much as possible, prevent backsliding in their progress. The priority is not necessarily 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 a 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 – Hite 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 change the grading system to 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.”

No contact yet with 500 students

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

These are students who have never been in contact with teachers or other staff since schools closed – not by phone, text, or logging on to the District’s site for classwork. Some families have picked up Chromebooks, but never used them, he said.

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.

No more snow days?

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

In addition, he said, the District could change its approach to instruction during environmental cleanup in its aging buildings. This school year, before the pandemic, weeks of instruction were lost in some schools while needed work was done 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.”