School district preparing for long-term COVID-19 closure

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said school officials are working on a way to prepare teachers for their new virtual classrooms.
PHOTO: CHARLES MOSTOLLER

Public school officials plan to buy 50,000 laptops and distribute even more to students as the district prepares for what could be a long-term closure due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Officials are not pulling the plug on the school year yet, but it’s becoming increasingly likely classes won’t resume, as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies in Philadelphia.

“We don’t know whether or not school will resume this year,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday. “We take it day-by-day, hour-by-hour.”

Gov. Tom Wolf ordered schools statewide to remain closed through Monday, April 6, though School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said city schools would likely need at least another week to prepare to reopen.

“It is highly likely that we could be out for a much longer term, so, with that in mind, we are actively preparing for a long-term closure,” Hite said in a Facebook Live address to parents, teachers and others.

“Our first concern is to keep our children and school staff and communities safe,” he said.

Hite said more information on the duration of the closure would be released Friday or over the weekend following the Board of Education’s Thursday evening meeting.

At that meeting, Hite said he will ask the board to approve funding for the 50,000 new devices, rumored to be Chromebooks, which, along the district’s current cache of laptops, would be given to students without computers at home.

In addition, the district’s plan includes setting up broadband internet for every student that needs it, Hite said.

“Needless to say, this is a monumental effort that we are trying to complete over the next two weeks,” he said. “We will approach this work thoughtfully, although we are approaching it with a great deal of urgency.”

Hite said school officials are working on a way to prepare teachers for their new virtual classrooms.

It’s an ambitious plan, but one some, including the teachers’ union and education advocates, say is lacking in details.

In an email to members, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said Wednesday that the district has yet to develop an expectation for teachers and that there’s still questions over how the system will work for students with disabilities.

State guidelines don’t require schools to provide instruction during the COVID-19 closure, but districts that do must give students with disabilities the same opportunities.

“I did not find their answers to be thorough or fully sufficient for the questions I asked, and I will be continuing discussions with them,” Jordan wrote in the letter.

Advocacy organizations, including the Education Law Center and Public Citizens for Children and Youth, have urged the state and city to provide some form of instruction.

There have been accusations that the district is restricting teaching because it’s afraid it won’t be able to reach special education students and that city children are falling behind as suburban districts move forward with remote learning.

“This crisis has revealed the depth of disparities in educational resources between well-funded and underfunded districts and stark inequities in educational access,” said Maura McInerney, ELC’s law director, in a statement.

District officials have raised concerns about equality in a city with a poverty rate that hovers around 25 percent.

Nearly 40 school systems in the region are deploying laptops for virtual learning, including nearby districts such as Upper Darby and Neshaminy, according to PCCY.

Jordan, in the letter, said he is also concerned about teachers using their own devices and internet connection. His union is currently surveying members about the remote learning plan.

In the meantime, Hite said the district is encouraging teachers to reach out to their students and hold virtual office hours. Despite rumors to the contrary, teachers are allowed to conduct online lessons, he said.

“What we are trying to do is make sure that we are providing access to as many children as possible,” Hite said.

New learning guides are available online at phila.sd.org and will be distributed at the district’s 49 meal sites on Monday. They were supposed to go out Thursday, but printing issues got in the way, Hite said. The guides are not graded or mandatory.

Hite plans to hold Facebook Live sessions every Wednesday at 3 p.m. while schools are closed.

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