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An early learner studies at home in Philadelphia.

Photo by Melanie Bavaria

Melanie Bavaria / Chalkbeat

State closes schools at least through April 6, likely longer

Hite sends new guidance to District staff saying it is working on a remote learning plan and is exploring ways of providing technology, internet access to families

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Updated 8:15 p.m. with new guidance from Superintendent Hite to District staff

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has closed schools at least through April 6 due to COVID-19 – with a caveat that the shutdown could last longer.

In Philadelphia, a one-week spring break is scheduled to begin on that day.

At the daily city press briefing, Superintendent William Hite said the District is making plans for an even longer time out of school. On Thursday, it will make available another set of printed learning guides for home use – they are also available online – that will last for 10 additional days. Hite recommended that students finish the activities in the current learning guides this week and begin working on the new guides next week.

The District is also looking into the possibility of distributing laptops and tablets to students and providing internet access to families that don’t have it, he said.

“We are making a long-range plan,” Hite said. “We are beginning to explore ways to provide technology for more young people and broadband access in the event that this goes even longer.”

Later, District officials said they were drawing on corporate partners and foundations that had offered help to see what can be done if the shutdown lasts the rest of the school year, as many people expect.

The District now has a hotline available in 10 languages, including English, where parents and students can call for help with the learning guides, Hite said. The other languages are Albanian, Arabic, Chinese, French, Khmer, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Hite also said that teachers and principals are getting updated information about what they should do to keep in touch with students and make sure that learning activities are continuing. Last week, they were sent a memo banning them from conducting online learning for fear of running afoul of federal and state regulations requiring equity and access for all students, including those with disabilities and those learning English.

Hite later adjusted that directive, saying it wasn’t meant to be an outright ban. He clarified that teachers could not take attendance in virtual classes, penalize students who did not participate, or grade any of the work.

On Monday he went further, sending a letter to District staff saying that given the “ever evolving” guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education and the uncertainty, “staff district-wide have been working hard to support the most urgent needs of our students and families, and to identify new ways to do so while schools remain closed.”

The first example is “developing a remote learning experience for all students along with a plan to provide student devices to ensure equity.” Later, it says that the District is “working to clarify the supports our teachers can provide to students to keep them engaged and excited about learning every day.”

Hite’s letter also said that the District was organizing “virtual training and resources” for teachers so they can stay connected to students through Google Classroom. It also cites the new learning guides and the hotlines.

At the afternoon press briefing, Hite signaled that the District was taking a new posture about online learning activities.

“We have provided new and different information to staff members in terms of things we are encouraging them to do,” Hite said. “We want our teachers communicating with their young people, with their classes, we want them to maintain those relationships. We want them to help young people who may have forgotten their passwords to certain things. We have provided a lot of information around online resources that are available. That’s one of the reasons if this goes longer we need to find a way to distribute and give to more of our families the technology if they need access to the internet.”

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera said the state is preparing to help districts with plans that will allow them to fully serve students with special needs. The 29 intermediate units “are ready to provide technical assistance to help develop continuity of education plans for all students.”

He said that starting Tuesday, “all schools will be able to work with their local intermediate unit to develop instructional plans for all students, including those with disabilities and English language learners.”

Intermediate units are regional public educational services agencies through which districts pool resources, mostly for students with special needs. Philadelphia is its own intermediate unit, governed by the Board of Education, so it is unclear what additional help will be available in the city.

The information from the state Department of Education said that when it is determined that school can reopen, “administrators, teachers and other staff will be given two days to prepare classrooms, set up cafeterias, schedule transportation and arrange other business operations. Students would return on the third day.” Extending the school shutdown comes as Gov. Wolf issued a stay-at-home directive for seven counties – Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Monroe, Montgomery, and Philadelphia.

Rivera on Monday cancelled standardized testing for students in career and technical education (CTE) programs for the 2019-20 school year. These include exams from the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) and National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). The state PSSA exams given to 3rd through 8th graders and Keystone exams in major subjects given in high school were cancelled last week. The U.S. Department of Education has approved Pennsylvania’s waiver request regarding testing, accountability and reporting requirements for this school year.

Schools make their own plans

Meanwhile, city schools are continuing to make their own plans for keeping in contact with their students and promoting learning activities while not running afoul of equity and access requirements.

Several other districts and charter school organizations set aside one or two days for teachers and staff to meet and prepare. Philadelphia was unable to do that.

“We didn’t have the conversations proactively enough. It’s the reality of the size of the system,” said Ted Domers, principal of Carver High School of Engineering & Science.

So Carver’s faculty and staff spent all weekend coming up with learning activities and protocols to keep in contact with their students.

Domers said that concerns over equity and access didn’t come as a surprise. “We knew there were going to be complications,” he said. But the situation has “forced us to rethink how to keep engaged” with students.

“Our strategy, what we shifted to, is we needed to engage the kids in meaningful intellectual activities,” he said, “and we needed to find ways to stay connected.”

Carver staff collaborated to develop a 35-page guide that was launched Monday at noon with a range of learning activities. “We opened a Google doc, and everybody dropped ideas into it,” Domers said.

The journalism teacher put together a program open to the entire school, not just journalism students, in which they would blog every week. They set up “book clubs” for students to join. Domers is leading one to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about a woman who died in 1951, but whose cancer cells are still crucial to medical research. Another teacher is leading a club about The Autobiography of Malcolm X, another a Harry Potter book. “Any student can opt to join the book group,” he said.

One teacher is starting an online coffeehouse to share creative writing. Science teachers are doing virtual simulations of lab experiments for students to tap into. “We are trying to think as creatively as possible to extend thinking and learning with kids,” he said.

On the bright side, he said, “I think there’s an opportunity here to see learning in a different way.”

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, there is a faculty-wide Google Hangout to check in.

One problem, he said, is a consequence of the inability to give students grades. “It’s a frustration of teachers how grade-focused [students] are,” he said. “They want to know if they will get graded, and they ask, ‘why do we have to do this if it’s not being graded.'”

His hope is that this will help some students embrace learning for its own sake. “We are talking about learning on a totally different platform and in a totally different way,” he said. “The value of relationships and community is coming through more and more.”

Still, “It’s a big challenge.”

Other schools are also organizing regular virtual activities, recognizing the importance of social interaction as well as academic work.

Jaime Longo, a parent of 1st and 3rd graders at Houston Elementary School in Mount Airy, said via email that her 3rd grader’s teacher “has started holding (optional!) Zoom sessions four days a week, which are providing not just academic support, but also giving students some much needed social interaction. Before launching those sessions and posting material on Google Classroom, he reached out individually to every family to brainstorm options for access (including through gaming platforms).”

Houston teachers have also shared with families materials beyond what the District has made available, as well as sending “regular messages of moral support for families and students. They’ve also made a big and ongoing push to make sure that families know how to access meals for children, if needed.”

At the city media briefing, Hite announced that last week District schools distributed 47,000 meals to 23,000 students, and an additional 8,000 meals at recreation centers (which are not currently distribution sites).

This week, meals will be distributed at 49 District schools only on Mondays and Thursdays – three breakfasts and three lunches to each student. That is to minimize the need for families to go out as often for meals and for workers to be there to distribute them, he said. Hours are 9 a.m. to noon.

In addition, meals are being given out at some charter schools and at Philadelphia Housing Authority community centers, also on Mondays and Thursdays.

PDE has been providing ongoing guidance to school communities in the form of FAQs. That information is available at education.pa.gov/COVID19.