This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District of Philadelphia’s plan to distribute roughly 50,000 Chromebooks next week as part of a pivot to virtual learning is facing resistance from principals and teachers who say they’re being asked to jeopardize their health.
Union leaders haven’t formally rejected the plan, but are warning that a significant portion of their members may not show up as part of the in-person system to catalogue, prepare and distribute the laptops.
“How you treat your employees during a pandemic is important,” said Robin Cooper, head of Teamsters Local 502 Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA), the union that represents district principals and school administrators.
“I’m sure there will be some [principals] who stay home and some who will go in,” Cooper added.
Cooper says many of her members are older or look after older relatives. She says they’re wary of interacting with thousands of parents and children across the district’s 200-plus schools in the middle of an intensifying pandemic.
This early snag shows how difficult it may be for Pennsylvania’s largest school district to buy laptops for students that don’t have them at home, distribute them and then shift to a scaled-up version of online learning — all within a few weeks.
“It’s not about getting the children computers. We want to do that,” said Cooper. “But how do you do that?”
The district said in a statement Monday afternoon that it’s taken “many precautions to safeguard staff” while ensuring students get the technology needed to keep learning during the indefinite closure of Pennsylvania’s schools.
“Our children should not fall further behind in the existing digital divide by being denied access to technology at home while they can not come to school,” the statement said. “This Chromebook program is optional both for the adults who have volunteered to support this important work and the families who choose to participate.”
Sources familiar with the school district’s distribution plan say officials are asking each school to find staffers willing to volunteer to take inventory of existing laptops this week.
Next week — between April 6 and 8 — schools are slated to host in-person pickup sessions.
According to a memo circulated last week, principals are supposed to tell families to call, text or email when they’re arriving to pick up a computer. Each school was asked to find volunteers who could check texts and emails.
The memo said schools are also supposed to have a “delivery team” that will hand out those Chromebooks one at a time, sanitizing surfaces before and after use and maintaining at least six feet of distance during these exchanges.
The district said in a follow-up memo that starting Monday, it will deliver gloves to schools for volunteers to use throughout the inventory and distribution process. It also said schools could decide how many volunteers they need to effectively hand out computers.
There was no mention of masks in either memo, and CASA president Robin Cooper said she does not believe masks — which are in short supply nationally — will be provided.