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Powering Through With Love: SDUC Fosters Relationships and Connections in the Season of COVID-19

Heart of a Lion messages montage Powering Through With Love: District Fosters Relationships and Connections in the Season of COVID-19

Three Core Pilalrs By Nancy Cambria
Director of Communications

The School District of University City stands on three educational pillars: To humanize, personalize and problematize learning for its students.

These pillars cannot stand without the powerful reinforcement of day-to-day relationships between teachers, staff, families and students that are loving, caring and authentic - because positive relationships nourish success.

When COVID-19 closed the District’s buildings to teachers and students, District officials knew immediately that these pillars had to remain strong - that close relationships with our students, parents and community had to be maintained even if necessary public health initiatives to stem the virus forced us all to remain apart.

... the District has reached out in unique ways to ensure our families know that they are cared for and loved so they remain connected to their schools in valuable ways.

Air hug from Superintendent Breaking Bread

It began by offering nourishing meals, “air hugs” - and hearts. 

On March 23, with the support of Wyman, dozens of volunteers and many community partners, the District “broke bread” with its students and parents when it initiated one of the most successful Grab & Go Meal programs in the region. So far, more than 65,000 meals have been delivered to U. City students through a curbside pickup system that maintains not only safe social distancing but encourages "air hugs," fun and love.

The pickup sites have become essential places to connect with families, staff and the community in a supportive emotional way. At the pickup sites, volunteers often can be seen in silly costumes, dancing to music and smiling to cheer up our families. Social workers and staff check-in through car windows to see how families are doing. Fliers are distributed with news and also tips for parents to promote learning and provide positive activities to do with their children at home. Donated school supplies, art supplies and books are often distributed for free along with the meals. Parents are also extremely grateful to receive extra face masks to use day-to-day. The District has so far distributed 600 face masks to its families and volunteers.

"We have integrated social-emotional learning into every single element of the meal program," said Joe Miller, the District's lead Wyman partner. "The beauty of it is that we've been able to be safe with gloves, masks, hand wipes and sanitizing while giving some level of joy and well-being to our community.

The Grab & Go meal program has also enabled the District to develop wonderful partnerships with local churches, restaurants and nonprofits wanting to help. Those partnerships have enabled District families and volunteers to receive special treats like fresh baked cookies, coffees - even avocados and other fresh produce, Miller said. 

"It's even further brought together our own University City staff and leadership together on projects they normally wouldn't work on together, creating a sense of joy and achievement during such a difficult time," Miller said. 

The meal program sparked the creation of the bright Heart of the Lion yard signs that can be seen all around University City that feature encouraging messages like, "You’ve Got This," "Just Breathe" and "We Love You." The signs were first developed for the curbside pickup lines, but it became clear they should be spread across the community. The heart signs can also be found along busy roadways such as Delmar Boulevard and Kingsbury Avenue. The signs are so popular, local news stations have even highlighted their positive messages during news broadcasts.

Chromebook Distribution 033120 fromFB  Online for Everyone

But connecting means more than just meal drive-bys. When distance learning began later in the week of March 23, the district understood many of our families lacked basic technology and wi-fi to check in with their teachers and classrooms. 

Within two weeks nearly 100 hotspots were delivered to families to ensure they could connect to the Internet. Although all sixth- through twelfth-grade students already had District Chromebook laptops, elementary students did not. During the week of March 30, about 600 laptops were handed out curbside to third- through fifth-graders who did not have computers at home. Another 137 laptops were distributed to children in younger grades who needed special support or did not have computer devices in their homes.

The District continues to closely monitor connectivity to parents and students via distance learning. In surveys, more than 90 percent of teachers report they have the internet and technology access they need as well as District technical support to help them with their distance learning instruction. The District is currently surveying all of its families regarding connectivity and access to technology and distance learning.

Phone, Mail and Home Visits

But the connections became even more personal. As distance learning began, teachers from each school made personal phone calls or “touches” with families to ensure vital connections would continue through virtual platforms, email and the District’s Distance Learning Hub on the website. Social workers and school therapists called families they knew might be particularly in need, and some began home porch visits. 

We Heart U Postcard artwork School secretaries hand-signed and mailed more than 1,500 postcards to District families to let them know how to contact them on their cell phones with questions, needs or concerns.

By week two, when it became clear that about 5 percent of District families - many with high needs - had yet to check in with teachers, principals or virtual classes, Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley went on the move. In less than a week, she made porch visits to 81 different households to visit with students and families, help them with resources and urge them to get back to work. Thew gesture resulted in more kids logging in and participating in school reducing their risk of falling behind.

“Every day they lose is crucial,” Hardin-Bartley said. “It can erase gains and put them in jeopardy of repeating grades or dropping out of school. I just couldn’t have that.”

Heart of a Lion 44 Here for you  Virtual Connections

Connections were built on social media as well through a #TogetherUCitySchools campaign. Teachers and staff continue to send cell phone photos of them holding handwritten messages of support and inspiration inside hearts. These “heart” photos continue to post on the District’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, giving both students and families chances to see familiar faces with uplifting messages. Those photos continue to be shared on a special video shared with students and families featuring fun and inspirational songs.

As the school closures continued, teachers and staff designed their own special ways to connect with students and one another, holding Zoom social hours, wellness check-ins with school counselors and trauma specialists, and more. Facebook school spirit days remain a regular part of every student's week.

UC Pic Senior Celebration

The District’s high school seniors have also been given special TLC to help them positively recognize their final days as high schoolers during a season of disappointing cancelations of traditional school celebrations. Though prom and graduation have both been postponed to June 6 and June 15 respectively, students received their caps and gowns curbside on Friday, April 24. The local news was present and interviewed our seniors about coping with COVID-19. You can view their powerful words on broadcasts here and here.

Earlier in the week seniors were surprised when a group of University City High School PTO volunteers placed personalized yard signs in front of all of their residences. Students have been sending in photos of themselves dressed in their cap and gowns next to their yard signs which are now being featured on Facebook and Instagram. 

Online Resources

The District’s teachers and staff look forward to the day when COVID-19 will no longer be a worry and its playgrounds, classrooms, stages, gyms, cafeterias athletic fields and theaters will again be filled with the daily interactions and relationships that build joy and fuel learning in the District. In the meantime, please remember to check out all of the District’s self-care resources available to families to be well under the COVID-19 button at the top of the District’s homepage.