A pandemic forced Francis Scott Key Elementary to lock its doors in mid-March. But principal Pauline Cheung is keenly aware of the role played by Key and many other schools that serve the region’s most vulnerable children.

“Our schools are not closed. The buildings are,” said Cheung. “I feel that we have to be open more than ever.”

Schools that have outsize roles in their students’ lives are doing their best to serve as safety nets, not just places where children learn reading and math.

Educators — especially those in the Philadelphia School District, where more than three-quarters of pupils are considered economically disadvantaged — are still finding ways to feed hungry families, connecting parents to resources for unemployment benefits, internet access, and tech support.

Mostly, they’re reminding families that they’re not alone even during the COVID-19 outbreak, which closed hundreds of schools in Philadelphia and beyond on March 13.

That would explain why it felt like a family reunion — minus the hugging — inside the Mitchell Elementary library last week, as families lined up on the blacktop at 55th Street and Kingsessing Avenue to pick up loaner Chromebooks in anticipation of their children’s having remote lessons, set to begin in the School District later this month.

The needs at Mitchell, a K-8 with nearly 500 students, are enormous. All of its families live below the poverty line; some are homeless. Principal Stephanie Andrewlevich estimates that more than 100 families have been receiving some sort of food pantry assistance, much of it through Mitchell’s partnership with the nonprofit Delaware Valley Fairness Project. She and others have also solicited donations and dipped into their own pockets to do things like purchase diapers for struggling families.

Chris Kleinschmidt, assistant principal, organizes power cords and laptops at Mitchell Elementary, in Southwest Philadelphia. Parents stopped by the school to talk with staff, and pick up laptops and books.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Chris Kleinschmidt, assistant principal, organizes power cords and laptops at Mitchell Elementary, in Southwest Philadelphia. Parents stopped by the school to talk with staff, and pick up laptops and books.

Even before the Mitchell library doors swung open at 10 a.m., parents were lined up outside, six feet apart. The computers are crucial, staff and parents said, but the connections are also important.

“Our families are getting a sense of relief, a sense of joy, and we’re getting that too, just by seeing them.” said Andrewlevich. “Plus, this makes everything a little bit more fair, because every kid deserves to have technology at home.”

Mitchell families, who were asked not to bring their children to the Chromebook distribution so strict social distancing would be possible, walked in a few at a time to collect not just the computers, but also armfuls of other donated materials, including novels, coloring books, and crayons for younger students.

Andrea Evans, a Mitchell first-grade teacher, gave air hugs to the parents who stopped at the table where she handed out instructions on how to get online. Evans said she felt relieved that she could remind families that she was still available as a resource.

“In this neighborhood, we don’t know if our kids’ needs are always being met when we can’t see them, and that just kills us,” Evans said.

Annette Williams has six children who attend Mitchell — kids in eighth, seventh, sixth, fifth, and second grades, plus a kindergartner. Williams picked up her kids’ computers on Friday as well as books to keep them busy.

“If you can’t remember the password, feel free to give me a call or a text,” teacher Shaw MacQueen told her. “Tell them I said hello. Tell them I miss them.”

After three weeks with no school, it was good to see her children’s teachers and principal, Williams said.

“I’m so happy with this school,” she said. “Everyone here just loves the kids, and they treat them like their own.”

Teacher Jason Bui had been texting students prior to the Chromebook distribution, but he was excited that handing out laptops would mean he could give students a sense of normalcy, giving lessons and playing chess with students in real time by sharing his screen in a Zoom meeting.

“Kids are definitely missing routine,” said Bui, who teaches a chess class and runs the school’s chess team. “I hear a lot of, ‘I’m bored.’ There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do.”

Even before the pandemic, many Mitchell families experienced food insecurity, and the economic downturn is hitting hard, said Andrewlevich, the principal. On the days when she’s been in the building organizing resources, a steady stream of people have stopped her to ask for food or other assistance.

“We want them to know, ‘We’ve got you, and we’ll be back when all of this is done,’” said Andrewlevich.

Sometimes, it’s not about resources but about moral support, said Tamiah Francis, 18, a senior at South Philadelphia High School who often checks in with trusted school staff.

“I really haven’t been motivated. It’s the same thing every day,” said Francis. “You lose track of the days; it’s really depressing being in the house all the time.”

To cope, Francis keeps in touch with the staff at Southern, whose teachers, community school coordinator, and other employees have been sending a steady stream of texts, calls, and e-mails to their 600 students, answering questions and providing support.

At Key, a K-6 school in South Philadelphia with about 500 students living below the poverty line, more than half the pupils are English language learners; the families speak dozens of languages.

As the pandemic hit Philadelphia in earnest, Cheung began compiling a list of families who would go hungry without access to free food. It started with a dozen and is up to 100.

“People reached out and said they had lost their job, they had two weeks of food left, and so I thought, ‘What can I do to help?’ I reached out to my staff, to community members, churches, anyone I knew who could help,” said Cheung.

Staffers are keeping in touch with every family in the school, passing along resources about tenants’ rights, unemployment benefits, and accessing the internet. They are working on video tutorials, helping to troubleshoot technology problems, and even shopping for groceries.

“We’ve got to mobilize our own resources for our families,” Cheung said. “We’ve got to have backup plans.”