This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
UPDATED 6:30 p.m.
Responding to an avalanche of opposition and fear regarding safety from the COVID-19 outbreak, Superintendent William Hite is now proposing that school be virtual through at least the first marking period, which ends Nov. 17.
In a letter posted on the Philadelphia School District website, he said that “after careful consideration of all the feedback we’ve received,” the District is backing off its initial hybrid plan that would have had most students learn in person at least two days a week and would have required teachers to be in the building four days a week.
“I believe it’s important to listen. And it’s important to have your trust and support as we all try to create a plan that will help our children learn in an environment we have never experienced,” Hite wrote.
After the first quarter, students would “transition to the hybrid learning model as long as guidance from the Philadelphia Department of Health and other indicators support it is still safe to do so.”
He also noted that they are not going forward with the Districtwide online digital academy option, which neighborhood school families and staff worried would result in a loss of resources and teachers at their schools. “For the hybrid model, we will continue to evaluate digital opportunities that prioritize students being taught by teachers in their enrolled school,” he wrote.
On Thursday, the Board of Education will reconvene the meeting that was recessed without a vote last week after more than six hours of impassioned testimony from principals, teachers, and parents advocating for an all-virtual opening. The board is expected to vote on the new plan at the meeting, which will begin streaming live at 4 p.m. on the District website. People can register to speak at the meeting or submit testimony.
Hite based the original hybrid plan on the responses to District surveys, taken during the spring, of thousands of parents, teachers, and students. Most of them said they would feel at least somewhat comfortable returning to school buildings. But the situation changed rapidly as COVID-19 cases started trending up in the city, and people grew increasingly wary of the District’s ability to adequately sanitize and ventilate school buildings. The fear and doubt burst open at the eight-hour board meeting last week.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers also surveyed its members during that period and came out in favor of a hybrid plan.
Hite made his announcement hours after the PFT changed course and called for a “fully virtual” start to the school year for at least the first quarter.
A news release said the union based its new position on a survey of members taken over the past week. Of the 7,500 survey respondents, the union said in a statement, “73.6% feel personally unsafe entering school buildings. Only 8% said they feel safe. An even greater percentage of respondents, 78%, feel that their students’ safety is jeopardized by entering school buildings. Only 6% felt it would be safe for their students to enter buildings.”
The Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA), which represents principals, has also called for a virtual opening of schools.
CASA argued that schools don’t have adequate staff to “properly implement and monitor social distancing guidelines,” adding that the face-to-face model envisioned in Hite’s original plan would not allow for some of the most valuable instructional practices. Both PFT and CASA cited ventilation problems in schools as well.
“Never in our lifetimes have we seen a situation like this, and there is no road map for how to navigate so many factors,” said PFT president Jerry Jordan in a statement. “We desperately want to reopen school buildings, but unfortunately, there’s been a confluence of events – not the least of which being the virus trajectory itself – that shows that this is simply not possible.”
Jordan added: “The health and safety of our students and educators must be paramount, and we cannot gamble with their lives. Our membership has spoken, and in conjunction with the science of the virus, our research, and what we know now, the District must begin the year in a fully virtual format. Lives are on the line.”
Mayor Kenney said in a statement that the city would prioritize the expansion of internet access and that it is also planning to provide “supervised, connected spaces for those students who can’t safely stay at home during the school day.”
“To be clear, the City cannot replicate a school environment or provide childcare for all School District students, therefore the vast majority of students will be learning at home. But we will prioritize supporting children and families with the greatest needs,” he said.
In an interview, Board President Joyce Wilkerson said that she is very concerned about the most vulnerable students falling further behind in an all-virtual environment and wants to make sure that all students have internet connectivity. Yet, she added, at Thursday’s meeting, the board heard the “concerns-slash-fears” of the community in deciding to postpone a vote.
She also said that some of the safety issues parents were most worried about will continue for students who will need to spend their days in the supervised city locations.
“I worry a lot about the children who are not going to be well-supported through a virtual strategy,” she said. “What we’re saying is … the city will take the lead on opening up facilities, and there will be adults in those facilities,” although not teachers.
Having such spaces where adults and children congregate, she pointed out, “means there will be children at risk. That’s not going to change.”
She said Hite has been meeting with clergy and others and the city to identify the facilities, likely to include libraries and recreation centers, and “brainstorm with people ways of trying to create enriching opportunities so that children don’t drop as far behind as they are at risk of falling.”
Whether school buildings might be included among those facilities is unknown.
Wilkerson also lamented the thought of eager children waiting to start kindergarten and “how this will be their introduction to school, little kids looking forward to showing up with their backpacks, all of that. Instead, it will be ‘Let’s go turn on the TV,'” or sit in front of a computer.
“There are no easy answers out there,” she said.
The revised plan that the board will consider Thursday will be a health and safety blueprint to submit to state education officials and will not include the details of its educational strategies.
Donna Cooper, executive director of the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children & Youth, said that is crucial.
She pointed out that in the Great Depression, many schools closed down for two or three years, affecting an entire generation. “Calamities of this scale take a toll on children,” she said.
She said the District needs to make the best of it and needs to give itself the task of “doing this better than anyone else in the country” and conducting world-class professional development for teachers.
“My dream is that there are 1st-grade learning communities and 2nd-grade learning communities, with teachers talking about what they are doing, [creating a] kind of infrastructure that focuses on how best to do teaching and learning remotely,” she said. “That has to start tomorrow. But I am confident we can do this.”