This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania education officials confirmed today that when it comes to “distance learning,” school districts can expect little guidance from the state, and instead will be left to develop standards and practices on their own.
Since the sudden shutdown of the state’s schools in the face of the fast-moving coronavirus crisis, issues of online access and instructional equity have taken center stage among educators. Today, the Pennsylvania Department of Education – backed by legislation approved Wednesday in the General Assembly – clarified that it is up to individual school districts to determine how to solve the puzzle.
Rather than follow any state guidelines or standards, they say, districts must make a “good faith effort” to provide remote instruction to students and submit a plan to the state for doing so.
This means that the task of determining what is equitable and effective will fall to a group of school districts whose approaches and resource bases already vary widely, with some offering comprehensive online learning to their full range of students, and others just beginning to survey their families to find out who has laptops and internet access.
Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday, emphasized that the state’s Department of Education and its 29 Intermediate Units – regional educational service agencies – are ready and willing to offer assistance to districts, charter schools, and career and technical schools.
Districts are trying to ramp up their remote instruction, but they have vastly different resources at their disposal to do so. Citing long-standing federal requirements, many are still fearful that if they cannot provide equitable services to all students, particularly those with special needs and English learners, they cannot and should not offer online instruction.
“We are encouraging districts to provide continuity of education for their students,” Rivera said. “We recognize that resources vary from district to district, and we are working with [Intermediate Units] to help districts with planning and access to free resources that already exist.”
Donna Cooper of Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), a leading child advocacy group in Philadelphia, was pleased to see the state formally release districts to pursue their own distance-learning policies. The problem, she said, is that districts have had that responsibility all along, and widespread inequity has been the result. With wealthy districts already teaching and learning online, Cooper called on Philadelphia School District officials to move quickly to put plans in place to catch up.
“We all need to move faster, but the District really needs to move faster,” Cooper said.
How much Pennsylvania will step up to help its districts shape policy and correct for inequities – and how quickly – is unclear.
Rivera suggested that the state might provide resources to help districts with technology acquisition and distribution, suggesting that it was working with the U.S. Department of Education to devote some Title II money for that purpose. Title II is designated for educator recruitment and training.
He added that the General Assembly “understands the costs associated with such a dramatic pivot” in the delivery of education and that they are asking “what we can do to … make sure kids are receiving the services and resources they need. … We are working hard not to transfer the huge bulk of these costs to the school districts, especially our lowest-resourced districts.”
Both the U.S. Department of Education and PDE have clarified their guidelines requiring equitable services for all students in the face of the crisis, warning districts not to be paralyzed into doing nothing. And Wednesday, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed legislation codifying this.
The legislation, among other changes, includes a waiver of the requirement that schools be in session for 180 days and puts in the school code that “each school entity shall make a good faith effort to plan to offer continuity of education to students using alternative means during the period of closure.”
Matt Stem, the deputy secretary of elementary and secondary education, said on the conference call that PDE has “taken the strong position that every district should be planning and moving into some kind of continuity of education,” doing “everything they can with their availability of resources,” and making their efforts to achieve equity of service for all students “in good faith.”
Exactly what that means, however, is a work in progress. Advocates are emphasizing the need for remote learning to be offered even as they continue to push districts to come up with solid plans and deadlines for providing technology to students and training for teachers in offering online instruction. In addition, they want districts’ plans to include specifics regarding how English learners and students with disabilities will be accommodated.
On Tuesday, Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite announced that the District was planning to purchase or otherwise acquire devices for all its students who don’t have them, relying on schools to assess their students’ needs.
In a Facebook Live video, Hite said that he would ask the Board of Education for funds to purchase 50,000 devices to give to students at home within the next two weeks. He did not specify how much he was asking for or where the money might come from.
The Board of Education is scheduled to meet – remotely – on Thursday; the action item for purchasing and distributing the technology has not been added to the agenda available online.
Hite said that he would have more details by Friday or over the weekend about when schools might reopen, but that the District is preparing for the possibility of long-term closure.
PCCY has embarked on a social media campaign in Philadelphia under the #teachourkids hashtag. The goal is to press School District officials to specify when technology will be distributed to families, how it will provide online and home-based instruction, and how it will support special education students and English language learners.
The widely uneven response from school districts so far is proving that inequity has been deeply baked into the system, Cooper said.
“Districts have their own standards now,” she said. “There’s so much inequity in the system already, and now we’re going to be purists?”
Cooper, PCCY’s executive director and a former policy director for Gov. Ed Rendell, said districts should move quickly to get students learning and identify and solve problems along the way. PCCY’s recommendation is to act on two fronts: building up the infrastructure of online learning and simultaneously solving for the academic and equity issues by convening experts and contractors.
The two things should happen at once, she said, and should happen fast, if they’re not happening already. “They don’t have to happen sequentially,” said Cooper.
English learners, special education, and other subgroups need quick action from such groups of experts, and only the District can bring them together.
“All the people who do this work need to develop a plan,” she said.
Philadelphia is already slow off the mark, she said. “We’ve been out since March 13 – I don’t know why it hasn’t happened before,” she said.
Districts with wide disparities
By tying “good faith” to the availability of resources, PDE has left districts for the most part on their own.
A clear early lesson from the shutdown is that districts with resources are already pulling away from their peers. In some wealthier districts, students are still doing assignments that count toward grades. For instance, all Lower Merion High School students have district-issued laptops to take home, and teachers are assigning students schoolwork and giving them deadlines for submitting it. Students understand that the work will be graded.
Even before the shutdown, most schoolwork in Lower Merion’s two district high schools was submitted online, so the transition has been relatively simple.
In Philadelphia, by contrast, no graded schoolwork is being done given the continued challenge of providing services to all students, and Hite has acknowledged that this school year will likely be marked by an “asterisk.” Some individual schools give their students devices for home use, but that is by no means true districtwide. When providing students with work, teachers have been told they cannot grade it or otherwise penalize students for not doing it – which, several parents and teachers have noted, acts as a disincentive for students to do any work.
Hite said Tuesday that the third-quarter marking period was still open, but it remains unclear whether teachers can adjust students’ year-end grades based on work submitted during the closure.
Beyond the familiar gap dividing Lower Merion and Philadelphia, wide disparities are evident elsewhere in the region.
In response to Notebook queries, the New Hope-Solebury district in Bucks County said it “provides one on one computers for our students from Grades 3-12, and we have provided loaned laptops to our K-2 students.” Teachers have been providing enrichment for the first two weeks of the closure, but is now “progressing to more direct instruction and teaching of lessons virtually through our online platform.”
In Perkiomen Valley in Montgomery County, the special education department “has been working around the clock to communicate with parents to make sure students with special needs are accommodated. They are doing so through email, video-conferences and phone calls.”
But in Allentown, while special education students were given “access to the same online learning programs they use in the classroom” and provided with supplemental material, officials said only that “we will continue to follow the guidance of the Pennsylvania Department of Education and are not required to offer related services at this time.”
A PCCY survey found similar disparities. The group found 37 regional school districts that “have a technology distribution plan in place,” but 26 more that don’t. District plans vary widely within each county, PCCY found.
In Bucks County, for example, some districts are teaching students online, some are handing out devices to fill in resource gaps, some are making plans to address known needs, and some are still surveying families to find out what’s needed.
In Bensalem, with 6,000 students, PCCY reports: “Optional assignments, but no technology sent home.” In Neshaminy, with 9,300: “Distributed Chromebooks to grades who weren’t already supplied them.” In the Centennial district, with 5,400: “Survey to assess resources.” In Central Bucks, with 18,200: “Online learning began last week. Survey sent to K-6 and 12th grade students.” In Council Rock, with 10,800: “Distributed over 2,000 Chromebooks.”
PCCY also found “at least” six large urban districts that have handed out laptops or other devices: New York City and Ithaca, N.Y., Miami-Dade and Broward, Florida, Boston, and Columbus, Ohio. Together, those districts serve more than 1.7 million students.
Rivera said “every member” of the General Assembly is asking “what can we do … to make sure kids are receiving the services and resources they need.”
But whether this will result in significant additional resources is not yet known.
“They’re struggling,” said one Democratic legislative source. “I think they recognize the huge equity problem. … They’re trying to do what they can to encourage districts to at least come up with some kind of a plan.”
But whether or when they take the next step – putting in place conditions under which all districts can offer full online programs with trained teachers and students held accountable for their work – is still up in the air.
Rivera also said Wednesday that no matter how long schools are closed as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the academic year cannot be extended beyond June. That is when the fiscal year ends, he said.
“By statute, we cannot extend school past June 30,” Rivera said in a conference call with reporters.
Right now, schools are officially closed through April 6. Spring break in Philadelphia and some other districts is scheduled for the following week, which includes both the start of Passover and Good Friday.
– With Lynn Oseguera