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Planning amidst uncertainty

With few guidelines and plenty of concerns, officials and advocates prepare for a September like no other.

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

This is the first article from our May print edition, focused on educating in a pandemic.

As the nation’s coronavirus outbreak enters its third month, whether and how Philadelphia’s public schools can re-open in September remains unknown.

But as the national response to the pandemic takes shape, the nature of the environment in which that decision must be planned and executed is becoming clearer.

At one end: a White House that steadfastly refuses to set national policy or endorse clear guidelines.

At the other: thousands of Philadelphia public school students whose lives have been dramatically disrupted, and whose needs in September will be greater than ever.

In between: the full, sprawling array of public, private and nonprofit entities, each with its own interests and responsibilities, that make up Pennsylvania’s public education community.

In Philadelphia, this group – which includes city, state and school district officials, as well as advocates, lawmakers and service providers of all shapes and sizes – is just beginning to face the question of September. Many of the spring’s most urgent problems are now being addressed, and officials say they can now start planning for a safe and effective re-opening – and not a moment too soon.

“There’s a lot of timeline preparation, runway that we need,” said Naomi Wyatt, chief of staff for the School District of Philadelphia, at the May 14 meeting of the board’s finance and student achievement committees. “We’re feeling the pressure …. if we’re allowed to open but we can only have 15 students in a room, what would we need to plan?”

District officials say they’ll be looking to public health officials when it comes to the big decisions about when to reopen and how to do it safely.

“We want to do everything that we’re able to do to follow the guidance of the health community, the CDC and the state officials on this,” said Superintendent William Hite in a recent conference call with reporters.

And Hite says the District will continue to work closely with city officials to develop overall plans and strategies. But as September approaches, countless decisions about day-to-day details will fall to the District, which must grapple with everything from academic recovery plans to how to arrange desks and chairs, Hite said.

“Do we now begin to think about the furniture, creating structures that allow children to be socially distant?” said Hite. “How do you create one-way halls? How do you physically distance children in elementary schools’ small classrooms?”

“We’re working on those things,” he said. “Everything is literally on the table.”

Beyond District headquarters, the region’s advocacy community is confronting a slew of issues raised by the pandemic. First and foremost is the looming prospect of major budget cuts, as the pandemic drains state and local tax revenue. Advocates statewide are pushing to boost the federal stimulus and prevent state legislators from cutting state spending.

But advocates are starting to lobby to shape September policies as well. Among the leaders of the funding fight is PCCY, whose director, Donna Cooper, recently called on the District to find ways to keep any budget cuts from affecting in-school programs, including the arts, early literacy initiatives, and mental health supports.

“Our kids are having the worst year of their lives, just as we are. It’s simply the worst time, ever, to reduce the modicum of mental health and social supports already in our schools,” Cooper said. “The same goes for arts instruction.”

And while board members have made the fight for funding a clear priority, May’s committee meetings showed that they’re starting to wonder about September, too. Members told Hite that they want to know how his team plans to balance rising student needs with a sure-to-shrink District budget.

“I would love the administration to develop some scenarios,” such as the costs attached to various social-distancing approaches, said board member Lee Huang. “There’s such interplay between facilities and instruction [and] we have a very vulnerable population …. we need more tangible articulation of scenarios, so we can get a handle on the tradeoffs we may need to wrestle with.”

Hite’s team has promised to deliver such scenarios, as soon as June. “We hope to have those scenarios mapped out in the next few weeks,” said Wyatt. Hite said he hopes a final decision can be made by mid-July.

But planning is “a daunting task” in such an unpredictable situation, Wyatt added. And as the local and national pressure to re-open schools grows, some observers worry that safety will be compromised.

“Returning children to school is no politician’s priority right now. It’s all about returning the economy, it’s all about opening business. No one is talking about child care or schools at all,” said Akira Rodriguez, a professor of urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hite knows the stakes are high, and that the compromises available to the private sector are unavailable to school districts. When sports teams start selling tickets again, Hite said, fans can still stay home if they don’t feel safe. But when school opens up, students and staff can’t opt out, he said.

“Once we make a decision, young people are compelled to do it. It becomes law for them,” Hite said. “We have to take all that into account.”

A whirl of working groups and meetings

Since the arrival of the pandemic crisis, Hite says his team has worked closely with city officials, meeting weekly to plan and manage their response. Among the District’s key partners: the Managing Director’s Office, the Office of Children and Families, and the Office of Emergency Management.

Through the spring, much of the conversation between the District and the city has been about providing the most basic support to students and families, such as food and laptops. Partnership with the city’s social service agencies has helped the District connect with students outside of school buildings, said Hite.

“They’re helping us to locate families that we can’t seem to find,” he said.

Hite also hosts weekly update meetings with leaders of key unions, including Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Jordan said that the PFT is still talking to its own members in order to determine its exact priorities – a member survey has been completed and will be released soon – but he hopes to eventually work closely with the city and District on September plans.

“We remain very concerned about the feasibility of carrying out any scientifically based [re-opening] plan in such an enormous District,” said Jordan. “That is why we are spending a lot of time having discussions with our members, our elected allies, our union partners, and the community about what it would take to do this right.”

But union officials also said that they’re not entirely clear on how the District’s various task forces and working groups are set up, or how the PFT might collaborate with them.

District officials declined to share details of those working groups. But Hite said that the city’s support has been invaluable, and that talks with city partners have moved past food and laptops and onto the question of what comes next.

“We are also now talking about summer programming, summer meal sites, summer services for families,” Hite said. “Those talks are constant and ongoing, on a weekly basis … we’ve had a lot of interaction and alignment and integration with the city departments.” Plans now call for virtual summer school for up to 35,000 students designed to mitigate learning loss.

Successfully planning for the summer will help schools come September, city officials say.

“Our office is thinking about … how we can mitigate the spring and summer slide and support students to start the new year strong,” said Sarah Peterson, communications director for the Mayor’s Office of Children and Families. “We’re providing virtual out-of-school time programs and WorkReady opportunities so that students stay engaged and have learning opportunities during the summer.”

But much of the District’s planning must still take place internally, and the rapidly developing scientific and political factors make that a challenge.

Put simply: officials don’t know what exactly they’ll have to do, and they don’t know how much money they’ll have to do it with.

A good example is the simple question of how to clean buildings and classrooms. At May’s meeting of the board’s Operations and Facilities committee, interim facilities chief Jim Creedon told the board that his team is now in the “fact finding” phase of planning for several distinct forms of cleanup, including “confidence cleaning” for general-use areas, “specialized cleaning” for frequently touched items like keyboards or high-risk spaces like music rooms, and “responsive” cleaning that follows a confirmed infection.

The basic techniques for such cleaning are clear, Creedon said. In the case of “responsive” cleanup, for example, “you basically air out the room for 48 hours, then you come in and clean.”

But what seems simple in theory becomes complicated – and often costly – in practice. When rooms are quarantined, students have to be moved elsewhere, and arranging such “swing spaces” can be a major challenge in crowded buildings. Likewise, if social distancing requires smaller class sizes, students will need to use more rooms and even more buildings, which in turn drives up the overall cleaning budget.

And the budget ranks among the biggest unknowns of all. All that is certain is that this year’s state and local tax revenue will be lower than expected, and next year’s numbers could be far worse.

At the same board committee meeting, Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson said that the District is currently trying to whittle down its various contracts to those that are “essential,” but that what’s defined as essential “changes by the day.”

Monson told the board that the District’s revised budget will have to plan for projects and policies that may not happen, while counting on revenues that may not arrive. The state budget, slowed because of the virus-related delays in tax collection, won’t be known until July. Any September plans the District explores now could be upended by August – by politics, by the pandemic, or by both.

“We need to keep our options open, because it’s a changing landscape,” said Monson.

Likewise, board members said, as proposals and scenarios develop, the District will have to balance experts’ recommendations with classroom realities.

“We have to be very careful about the decisions we make … we want to have the science behind us, and there’s a lot of unknowns,” said board member Maria McColgan, who is a pediatrician. “Even wearing masks. Kindergartners – are they really going to keep them on? Is the effort worth it? We have to be realistic.”

Feds to states: it’s up to you, not us

All these discussions are taking place without the benefit of clear federal guidance, thanks to President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the bulk of pandemic policy to state governments.

That wasn’t what some federal officials wanted. After the pandemic hit the United States, the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC) drafted a 68-page set of re-opening guidelines that included detailed suggestions for school administrators.

However, those guidelines were scrapped after the Trump administration deemed them “overly prescriptive.” One White House official said that “it is not the role of the federal government to tell specific entities …. how they should go about doing things.” The CDC replaced its guidelines with a one-page “decision tool” which tells districts little more than that they should “listen” to local officials and “be ready” to deal with a range of problems.

One early CDC recommendation was that schools be closed wherever infection rates remain high; the one-pager scraps this suggestion. Earlier CDC drafts also called on schools to develop plans to protect “high risk” students and staff; the final draft merely recommends that schools “screen students and employees upon arrival.”

Educators and advocates have savaged the one-pager. The National Education Association called it “watered down” and “flimsy.” Danny Carlson, policy director for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, called it “clear as mud.”

In an op-ed at NBC News, three medical professors said the truncated guidelines “ignore the current scientific evidence” and “provide little concrete guidance.”

The revised guidelines call on schools to “intensify ventilation,” the authors note, but don’t say how. “What exactly does this mean?” the doctors wrote. “Should they open windows? Put in fans? Install negative pressure ventilation? How are they to ensure that the ventilation system doesn’t facilitate the spread of infection?”

The national School Superintendents Association (AASA) is recommending that districts rely on the CDC’s original draft – a version of which the CDC eventually released, but which the Trump administration says it will not implement – and ignore the one-pager.

“Our recommendation … will be to follow that first report, official or not, because at least it gives pretty specific guidelines,” said AASA Executive Director Daniel Domenech. “The proposal that was leaked we found very comprehensive …. apparently that was too specific for the administration.”

Districts weigh “hybrid” plans and additional closures

In this leadership vacuum, Pennsylvania school districts are developing their own plans. School district leaders are considering major changes to schedules and learning plans, and planning for the likelihood of additional closures if and when new viral outbreaks emerge.

Their strategies match some of those found in the newly-released recommendations from experts at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), whose analysis suggests that safe public schools will require small classes, staggered schedules, and careful management to minimize risk to adults and students.

In Western Pennsylvania’s Erie School District, for example, officials are working on a “hybrid” plan of online and in-school learning. “We have kind of settled on the fact that we are not going to be able to bring everybody back to school at the same time,” said Erie Superintendent Brian Polito. “There’s probably going to be restrictions on the number of students and class sizes.”

Educators will have to be ready to toggle quickly from classroom to online learning if schools are forced to close again, Polito said.

“What we’re really looking at is making sure that whatever we’re doing next year can be delivered either way, simultaneously, so that there is no disruption if we’re moving back and forth,” Polito said.

Closer to home, officials at the Lower Merion School District are eyeing a similar framework. Superintendent Robert Copeland recently sent a letter to parents saying that LMSD is considering “several basic scenarios” for the fall. “These range from a full opening on September 8, 2020, to a continuation of remote learning for all students,” Copeland wrote.

Among the many options facing LMSD: allow only half the student body into school buildings each day, while the other half works from home. Copeland told parents that LMSD officials now meet weekly with their own working groups to discuss the options, but cautioned that “much remains uncertain …. we are constantly updating our plans as additional guidance is issued by the state and county. We have no final answers yet.”

In Philadelphia, Hite and his team are beginning to consider how they might mix in-school programming and remote learning.

“It all depends on what the guidance will be on social distancing,” Hite said.

Done right, the District’s new plan could carry benefits that outlast the coronavirus crisis. A well-designed distance learning plan would mean that officials could move past “school as this place-based structure only,” Hite said. Students working remotely can tap into virtual resources, like online AP classes for students whose schools don’t offer them.

Maintaining that capacity even beyond the pandemic could make the District more effective, Hite said, but the classroom should remain the heart of the education system.

“We do intend to continue some sort of blend,” said Hite. “The ability to do some things remotely will be a possible solution, but it’s not a sufficient replacement for a student and teacher interacting on a daily basis.”

Plans unclear, but impact isn’t

But if the plan for September is unclear, one thing is becoming clearer: the coronavirus hits low-income and minority communities hardest, and students like Philadelphia’s are at the greatest risk.

The virus’ academic impact alone is unprecedented, Hite said. He expects students across the District to take a step back in their learning.

“I want to manage expectations for children who’ve missed five months of school,” Hite said. “Those children are not going to be where they would normally be.”

Among Hite’s top priorities for the fall: a series of academic assessments that can measure learning loss in students in every grade, across the District. “We do plan some sort of assessment for every child, to see where those children’s skills are,” he said.

But officials know that academic issues are just the beginning. The full extent of the social impact on students and families is still emerging, but there’s little doubt that the blow will be heavy in low-income and minority communities.

Research from Johns Hopkins University has found that coronavirus infection rates in predominantly African American counties are three times higher than in mostly white counties. The death rates are six times higher. A recent analysis of data from New York City found that death rates have been significantly higher among low income residents; those living in zip codes with average incomes under $50,000 die at about three times the rate of those living in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, leading one observer to label the virus “a poor man’s disease.”

And while the white and wealthy are by no means immune – white residents currently account for 27% of Philadelphia’s coronavirus deaths, and mortality rates are higher among whites than Hispanic or Asian residents – data also show that minority communities are hit hard by the disease. In Philadelphia, data show that African Americans have “higher numbers of deaths and higher rates of death” than other racial groups, with mortality rates that are currently about 30% higher than whites.

Experts attribute the gap to longstanding racial inequities in health care access, nutrition, housing and income. In a recent essay for the American Medical Association, cardiologist Clyde Yancy said that the most effective coronavirus prevention policy – social distancing – is something not everyone can afford.

“Being able to maintain social distancing while working from home, telecommuting, and accepting a furlough from work … are issues of privilege,” Yancy wrote. “In certain communities, these privileges are simply not accessible.”

How much the District’s policies can help stop the spread of the coronavirus into Philadelphia communities isn’t clear; experts disagree on the impact school closures have on overall infection rates.

But as long as the virus affects life in the city, Philadelphia schools will feel the impact in the classroom. District officials say they know that the coronavirus will mean a rise in stress, disruption, and trauma for students and their families. Hite has said that when school starts again, “managing trauma and reestablishing communities” will be a priority. He recently announced a new hotline for troubled students, run by the Uplift Center for Grieving Children.

Uplift’s Meghan Szafran said she hopes the “Philly HopeLine” will give young people a place to turn for support. “When kids are isolated, families are isolated, there’s a lot of worry, anxiety, and a lot of grief over things that are lost,” said Szafran.

Penn’s Rodriguez says that such support should carry over into September and beyond. Whatever the next academic plan is, she said, it should include a robust system for supporting students who are experiencing even more social and personal disruption than usual.

“We’re seeing this ongoing grief and trauma – the loss of income, the loss of jobs,” said Rodriguez. “You cannot teach a child with this level of trauma. Prioritizing not just physical health but mental health in the new school year will be a first priority.”