This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Just over half of students in the School District of Philadelphia have participated so far in online learning, far less than attend school under normal circumstances. But officials say the data could be heavily influenced by the way educators are recording it.
According to preliminary data presented Thursday to a school board subcommittee, 57% of students participated in remote learning at some point last week — which was the first week of graded, online instruction in Philadelphia’s traditional public schools.
Participation was better in middle- and high-schools, where 73% of students logged on at some point during the week of May 4-8. In the district’s K-8 schools, only 48% of students participated.
Participation could be registered in a “variety of ways” said Naomi Wyatt, the school district’s chief of staff, “including by text, phone call, sending pictures of work or entering the Google Classroom.”
District leaders attributed the difference to the way participation is logged at different grade levels. Older students can mark themselves present, while the participation of younger students must be logged by teachers.
Wyatt implied in remarks to the board of education that teachers hadn’t yet mastered the system for logging participation.
“It’s important to note that this is early participation data and it’s not fully representative of student participation,” said Wyatt. “The process for capturing student participation is new.”
Wyatt said the data does not include contacts between students and other staff members, such as counselors.
It’s hard to make a clear comparison to how the 57% rate compares to participation before coronavirus school closures.
The school district would not tell WHYY how many students attend school on an average day. The district does, however, publish data online that includes average daily attendance for each of its schools. The median school had an average daily attendance rate of roughly 93% in the 2018-19 school year.
Comparing Philadelphia’s numbers to those of other large cities is a fraught and caveat-laden exercise. Different cities use different thresholds to measure participation or attendance.
In New York City, data from early April showed about 85% of students logging on daily and recording some form of virtual participation. Washington, D.C. said 96% of its public school students had participated virtually in “some way.” But, in a union survey, a majority of teachers reported that only half of their students participated in academic lessons, according to The Washington Post.
When Los Angeles public schools went virtual, officials initially reported that a third of all high school students were not participating in online classes and more than 10% hadn’t made any contact. Those numbers have since improved, and by early April, the district reported that it had connected with over 95% of high school students.
Los Angeles made the transition to online learning much earlier than Philadelphia, which further complicates comparisons.
Philadelphia spent about a month purchasing and distributing over 83,000 laptops for students to use. In all, roughly two-thirds of district students said they needed a laptop in order to complete online assignments. The district — which educates about 130,000 students — did not begin mandatory online school until May 4, after a two-week ramp-up period.
Another 70,000 students attend public charter schools in Philadelphia run by dozens of operators. Information about the virtual learning plans and participation rates in those schools has been released piecemeal, if at all.
Superintendent William Hite said district officials will focus less than usual on traditional academic metrics for the rest of this school year. Instead, they want to emphasize the importance of maintaining student-teacher relationships in a time of social isolation.
So far, district officials say they’ve been unable to establish contact with approximately 1,500 students in the school district. That’s roughly one percent of all district students.