Universal equips students with supplies, computers for virtual learning

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Universal Institute Charter School Dean of Students Tyrone Highsmith hands out school supplies to students. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Most kids dread going back to school after summer vacation. But Universal Institute Charter School is making sure students are fully prepared once doomsday arrives.

Universal distributed backpacks and school supplies to its students to make sure the school year begins on equal footing, as Universal is set to go to full virtual instruction on Sept. 1.

“We have a plan, similar to the School District of Philadelphia, that we will be virtual through the first marking period on Nov. 8,” principal Jeffrey Williams said. “Then we will do a hybrid model after that in which 50 percent of the scholars (are in school) at one time. And we will be on an A-B schedule.”

School officials gathered at Universal Institute Charter School on Catharine Street on Thursday to hand out supplies to its young students, ranging from kindergarten to third grade, through a partnership with PECO. The goal was to help all students start the year in a positive manner.

Once schools were shut down last year due to the pandemic, Universal Companies handed out more than 400 Chromebooks to students throughout its seven schools to help take instruction online. That effort continued this week, as incoming students were armed with computers and internet access.

“When this all started, we gave out more than 465 Chromebooks,” Williams said. “On top of that, we’ve given out 75 more today to our kindergarteners coming in because they are new to our school. We’ve given them school bags and starter supplies to help out the families.”

Universal Students Khamir, 10, and Cassayah, 5, received their school supplies on Thursday at Universal Institute Charter School on Catharine Street. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Maria DeGracia-Redhair is a parent of two children and also teaches eighth grade social studies at Universal. The giveaway helps things run much more smoothly in both categories.

“As a parent, you know that they really care for your child,” DeGracia-Redhair said. “As a staff member, it’s also a very positive working environment and they try their best to inform us as best they can on the current situation and give us the tools and training that we need.”

Students were also given free internet access that the school purchased through Comcast. Each student is now equipped to take on virtual learning for the foreseeable future, which helped bridge the digital divide.

“There’s no question of inequality in America when it comes to education,” DeGarcia-Redhair said. “Seeing there is a one-to-one availability for laptops, it really puts this school in line for 21st century goals and preparing these students, who are also my own children, for the future.”

The children will also receive personal protection equipment provided by Keystone First. Next up: first day of school in early September.

“I’m seeing some of the kindergarteners today and trying to gauge how they are feeling,” Williams said. “They are so resilient, so they are just going with the flow. Our staff is excited, and we are excited to see the kids virtually soon.”