This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Superintendent William Hite has pledged that all students will have internet access by the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, which will be all-virtual, at least until Nov. 17.
“We’re going to solve that problem,” Hite vowed in a Wednesday call with reporters. “All of our children who need internet access will have it.”
On Tuesday, Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson said that responsibility to assure this went beyond the District to the city and the internet service providers themselves. Comcast and Verizon are the major ones in Philadelphia.
“My position is we’re not starting school unless every child is connected,” Wilkerson said. If the District has to, she said, “we will pay for it. But we can’t pretend we’re running school virtually and have children who have no way of getting connected.”
Hite couldn’t say for sure how many families with children in city schools continue to lack reliable internet access at speeds and bandwidth sufficient to attend virtual classes and do classwork online. In the spring, the District pegged the number at around 5%.
“Individuals who provide the services have the data,” he said. “We do not have the data. It’s the ISPs and all the mobile service providers who can do that.”
In part due to the inability to serve all children and the inequity that represented, the District provided only “review and enrichment” online from mid-March, when schools closed due to the coronavirus, to early May — a period of six weeks.
Hite said that “lots more people are trying to engage in this effort now,” representing the city, the District, and the providers.
“Either through work that is happening in collaboration with the city, City Council, the Commerce Department, and all of the providers, or through efforts of the District, we’re going to see to it that … every student that needs it will have it,” he said. “We were trying to solve that problem in the spring, but … either through solutions that will come through the city, or through the District itself, we’re going to solve that problem.”
He said access would be “treated like Chromebooks.” The District purchased 40,000 of these computers and distributed them to all the students who said that they needed them to do schoolwork in the spring.
Advocates, including Council member Helen Gym, have called for the providers to open up the residential hotspots, in addition to the commercial hotspots that Comcast and Verizon did open up to the public when schools closed.
Hite said that he didn’t want to elaborate on preferred “types of solutions,” but said another solution might include the installation of more towers in any “deadspots” in the city. “We solved the hardware problem” by providing the Chromebooks, he said. “Now we’re trying to solve the internet access problem.”
A Comcast spokesman referred all questions about how providing service to all students would be accomplished to the city and the District. “The City and School District are really leading this work, and they’re also the lead for [communications],” said an email from spokesman Charlie Douglas. “I hear they’ll have a larger update to share in the next week or two.”
Hite said the online instruction provided to students in the first quarter “will not be like the spring.”
Malika Savoy-Brooks, the District’s chief of academic support, said virtual learning will include real-time instruction by teachers in new materials and provide opportunities for project-based learning, independent tasks, and peer-to-peer learning, said
Teachers and principals will receive enhanced professional development through August, and the original start date for students will be pushed back from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 to provide more days for teacher training.
The school board is scheduled to convene at 4 p.m. Thursday to vote on the revised “health and safety plan” required by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which does not include details about educational delivery. The board recessed its July 23 meeting at Hite’s request after the public came out in force to oppose the initial hybrid plan, in which most students would attend school for two days a week and teachers would be in school for four days.
At that meeting, there were 153 speakers registered and more than 100 actually spoke. This meeting continuation is limited to 10 speakers on the health and safety plan action item.
School communities, however, are still full of questions about how the all-virtual instruction will be implemented. The issues include attendance requirements, grading, extracurricular activities, and teacher autonomy.
Two other resolutions on Thursday’s agenda indicate that the planning process for reopening schools has been guided by pro-bono consultants that Comcast helped to secure. In those resolutions, the board is accepting a donation estimated at $345,000 for the services of Ernst & Young for project management services concerning the development of the reopening plan and up to $63,000 for the services of Accenture.
Both resolutions describe Comcast as “a partner with the District for many years” that has an existing relationship with each of the consulting firms. They add that “the District is benefiting from additional capacity and support” from the companies in developing its complex scenarios for conducting education during the pandemic.
Some written testimony submitted to the board raises questions about those two resolutions.
Inspired by @positv_slope, I'm posting my written testimony submitted for tomorrow's @PHLschoolboard meeting here. They didn't give us much time (less than 24 hours), so it isn't my best work. 9 questions for our leadership. #PHLed https://t.co/4c3uMSdi90— Charlie McGeehan is not on here anonymously (@CMcGeeIII) July 29, 2020
On Wednesday, Hite and other District officials offered some details about how the now all-virtual first quarter will help students with disabilities who need one-on-one therapies or other interventions. Savoy-Brooks said those students will receive “teleservices” that meet their Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs.
Hite also said that the District would use the time between September and November to accelerate building projects to mitigate issues with asbestos, lead, and ventilation.
The revised reopening plan calls for the city to set up centers where students of essential workers can participate in their virtual classes in supervised settings during school hours. The city is planning to use locations such as recreation centers, and some schools may also serve as these learning centers, Hite said.
Some teachers have also indicated that they may want to teach from their classrooms rather than from home, and that option is also being studied, he said.