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School closed for the rest of the year

The District is distributing Chromebooks and finalizing its "continuity of education" plan. It is also losing at least $2 million a week in expected revenue.

William Hite speaking into a microphone.
School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite (Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY)

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

It is now official: Pennsylvania schools will be closed for the rest of the academic year.

Gov. Wolf made the call Thursday after consulting with Health Secretary Rachel Levine and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, saying the step was “in the best interest of our students, school employees, and families.”

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite learned the news in the middle of a media briefing Thursday morning, and it came as no surprise.

“We were planning for an eventual announcement of that sort already,” Hite said. But the formal announcement “allows us to plan more specifically around this issue.”

Those plans include the continued distribution of 40,000 Chromebooks this week and next so that instruction for students can start again on April 20.

The Board of Education last month allocated $11 million to purchase 50,000 of the basic laptops. Hite said that the remaining 10,000 would be acquired if needed.

He also said that the District’s budget was being hit hard, losing $2 million a week from the liquor-by-the-drink tax, all of which goes to support the schools. And he lamented the loss of graduations, proms, and other rites of passage for thousands of students, promising that somehow the District will try to make it up to them.

After Hite’s press conference, District spokeswoman Monica Lewis said that 35,000 Chromebooks had been delivered to 173 schools, with the remainder to be shipped next week.

Hite emphasized that parents and students needed to pick up the Chromebooks at designated times, which differ depending on the school and rely on the availability of volunteers to aid with the distribution. The volunteers are District staff and community members.

He emphasized that all the rules of social distancing are being observed, and Lewis said later that the District is providing gloves needed at all locations.

“Our staff has face masks, are wearing gloves, and staying six feet apart,” she said. “We have spoken with our staff, reiterating the importance of social distancing. I was at one place today, and I can confirm we are giving gloves to everybody handling the distribution.”

However, a petition on Change.org sponsored by the Caucus of Working Educators says that making parents leave home and go to a school – in some cases, using public transportation – puts people in danger and could further spread the virus.

The petition, which went up a week ago and has more than 500 signatures, calls for the Chromebooks to be mailed or even hand-delivered by school personnel to students’ homes.

Lewis said that because the laptops must be signed for, this is not a practical solution. She also pointed out that parents are going to schools and other drop-off points to pick up meals. Hite said that more than half a million meals have been delivered to 90,000 families.

A few schools that planned ahead and had Chromebooks in the school were able to send them home with students or hand-deliver them to students’ houses.

Hite thanked District employees who came forward to help distribute the Chromebooks. “When they learned some schools needed additional support, individuals offered to assist not just their schools, but other schools,” he said.

Hite acknowledged that the learning curve for using technology to teach remotely for the rest of the year is difficult for both teachers and students. He said that more than 7,000 teachers had gone through training in Google Classroom, which is the District’s platform for tracking student work online.

However, he said that before the pandemic, only 15% of teachers had been using it.

“We’ll have other professional development for teachers helping to strengthen their … ability to use the tools,” he said. “All sessions are available on demand.”

The instruction scheduled to start April 20 will be enrichment and review, with new material introduced on May 4. Teachers will be able to take attendance and begin grading at that point.

Under state guidelines, each district must submit to the Department of Education a “continuity of education” plan that outlines how it plans to meet the needs of all students, including those with special needs – a massive undertaking. Its plan for taking attendance, tracking enrollment, and offering instruction must be approved by PDE.

Hite acknowledged that this will not make up “100 percent” for what has been lost due to the school closures, saying that a lot must still be worked out. He noted, however, that 10-15 of the days that were lost would have been devoted to state testing, so that helps. He said that although the school year could not be extended past June 30 (although he hasn’t yet said whether it would be extended from June 12), the District is looking at enhanced programming over the summer, especially for special needs students and those learning English.

“If students are having difficulties meeting course requirements, we want to get them back on track,” he said. “We want them to move toward graduation.” For those who need to make up credits to graduate or move to the next grade, “we will extend opportunities for learning, whether in summer school or not.”

Hite said that the District would mail diplomas to graduating students and honor them in some way.

“I’m going to plan an event to recognize the class of 2020,” he said, although he is still not sure whether it will be District-wide or school-based. And any dues that they paid toward graduation or for a prom will be refunded, he said.

“This is nothing that we envisioned for the young people in class of 2020,” he said.

He said that school personnel will “do everything we can” to help them with college materials, plans to move into the workforce, and guidance so they can deal “with the social and emotional aspects of this. …This is nothing any of us could have envisioned.”

The District is losing $2 million a week due to the loss of the liquor-by-the-drink tax, Hite said, because all bars and restaurants are closed. The city’s Use and Occupancy tax is also not being collected. Other state and city revenues are down.

Although the federal bailout includes money for schools, there are no estimates yet what the state’s and District’s losses will be and what percentage will be offset.

The District’s fiscal 2020 and 2021 budgets were forecast to have fund balances – which is considered a best practice but sometimes criticized in a district where the challenges are great and the resources relatively scant compared to the need. Hite said situations like this “are why the fund balance is so critically important; it can hold us over until such time revenues start to come back.”

But, he added, “I’m anticipating we’re going to be operating through some pretty significant financial challenges.”

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