When schools were forced to close in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of students in Southern California stopped receiving many essential services from their schools, such as meals and access to technology. As the digital divide widened between students who have access to computers and internet at home and those who don’t, PBS SoCal worked with teachers and community organizations to expand its STEM backpack program.
The STEM backpacks are part of the station’s offerings of inclusive content that yields high-quality enrichment for all students. Since the backpacks include activities that keep kids busy without tech devices, they became very helpful for parents who had been juggling doing their jobs with assisting their children with online instruction during the pandemic.
To do this, early learning pros Suzie Hicks, Daniela Valenzuela and Sandra Cruz met every Tuesday since late March in Valenzuela’s backyard to fill as many as 300 to 400 backpacks with educational materials.
“We were inspired by the Iowa PBS Station, as they packed activity packs to distribute at meal sites,” Hicks said. “Our community partners put us in touch with other organizations that were providing resources through meal sites to families experiencing homelessness, as well as families who had escaped abusive situations.”
PBS SoCal’s education team reaches out to families in Compton, Santa Ana, East Los Angeles and metropolitan Los Angeles neighborhoods to support parents and caregivers — particularly those with children between the ages of 2 and 5. The backpacks have allowed PBS SoCal to continue supporting families in those communities during stay-at-home orders.
Inside the backpacks, parents can find developmentally appropriate resources for early learning. Contents include crayons and stickers, plus activities aligned with early education standards, such as worksheets covering scientific inquiry and social-emotional learning, a children's book, and a postcard listing relevant PBS KIDS apps. They also include a bilingual flyer about PBS SoCal’s At-Home Learning resources for parents to engage with their young children around STEM during school shutdowns.
“We try to make the resources as bilingual as possible because we're not sure what language each household that is receiving the backpacks speaks,” Hicks said. She and her colleagues have been delivering the backpacks to more than 20 different sites in Los Angeles and Orange Counties on Wednesdays.
“We used to pack about 1,000 backpacks in a year, and now because of the pandemic, we were able to pack over 2,700 in just eight weeks for this project,” Hicks added. “We have delivered to schools, to family housing sites, child development organizations, meal sites and transitional housing sites.”
The station began the program in 2012 by sending about 100 backpacks to formal partners, but gradually expanded to other nonprofit organizations that work with communities in need. To date, PBS SoCal has distributed a total of 10,000 backpacks to community members.
“We’re hoping to do as many as possible to serve many more families over the summer,” Hicks said.
Any Southern California organizations interested in distributing backpacks to the families they serve can reach the education team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to be placed on a waitlist.
Other resources to continue learning in the summer:
Los Angeles Unified School District’s Summer of Learning program
Los Angeles Public Library Summer Reading Challenge
The Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation’s LA Reads