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School board approves plan for all-virtual education at least until November

The vote was 7-1. In contrast to last week, some said that the option for in-school learning should have remained. A board member who is also a pediatrician dissented.

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

In an occasionally testy Board of Education meeting where members expressed concerns about safety, monitoring, and community engagement, the board approved a revised reopening plan Thursday that will keep most Philadelphia School District students learning online until at least November.

The plan, reworked after an earlier version was roundly rejected by educators and the public at last week’s board meeting, calls for all students to begin school virtually, as principals and staff in the District work out plans for how each individual school will operate.

District officials said they hope the revised plan will offer a foundation from which the many stakeholders can work together to prepare for September and manage an unpredictable fall.

“This year will be challenging … and we all need to be prepared to learn alongside each other,” said Superintendent William Hite.

“This will be a difficult year – we look forward to working together as one community,” said Board President Joyce Wilkerson.

The revised plan passed by a 7-1 vote. One seat on the board is still vacant after Christopher McGinley resigned April 30 for family reasons.

Maria McColgan was the lone “nay” vote. McColgan, a pediatrician, said she believed that students stood to lose more from being out of school than from attending and risking exposure to COVID-19.

“I’m really, truly disheartened by the widespread mentality that we can’t open schools and be safe,” she said. McColgan cited several reports from medical associations in the United States and abroad that indicated that transmission of the virus is very low among the youngest children, while prolonged school shutdowns put children at “physical, emotional, and social risk.”

She quoted a British pediatrician who said: “the unintended consequences of COVID in children are far greater than the disease itself. The way we’re trying to prevent this is causing more harm than the disease.”

Students can learn to follow COVID guidelines about masks and distancing, McColgan said, and they should be encouraged to approach September as a challenge to be overcome.

“We give children far too little credit,” McColgan said. “I believe that what is on the table right now is the wrong choice.”

Some supporters on the board said they were disappointed that revisions had to be made to Hite’s original plan, which called for most students to attend school for two days a week and learn virtually the rest of the time. Teachers would have been in school for four days a week to accommodate two rotating groups of students.

Wilkerson said she had supported Hite’s first plan and believed fear had overridden facts. Faced with the opposition of parents and staff – more than 100 people who testified barraged the board with opposition at last week’s board meeting – the District was left with no choice but to revise the plan, Wilkerson said.

“It was distressing to see people reject the science, but it was also clear that without teacher and parent support, the plan would not be successful.”

Board member Julia Danzy likewise lamented that “hysteria has been accepted as real,” but voted yes on the revised plan and urged community groups and retired teachers to prepare to step in to help with tutoring and enrichment. “Now is the call for the village to get involved,” she said.

Other board members saw the revised plan as a workable start that will pave the way for a return to in-class learning.

“One thing that’s definite – we can’t implement a plan unless staff and teachers are willing to support it,” said member Leticia Egea-Hinton. “We have to start somewhere, we have to move this forward, we have to have a plan, but it is my hope that things will kind of fall in place so they can be in person. Because I do support children in classrooms, because that’s what is needed.”

Board member Lee Huang said that the new plan wasn’t ideal, but that the key to success would be faithful implementation and consistent scrutiny from school communities.

“However important the plan is, the successful execution is more important,” Huang said, urging school communities to “please stay engaged throughout the school year. This is not the plan I would have preferred, but it’s the one before us.”.

And board member Angela McIver called on District officials to significantly improve their outreach to educators and community members. She said that if the District fails to effectively engage the public, it risks losing public support.

“We cannot have an effective reopening plan without effective engagement,” McIver said. “The outcry last week is rooted in a deep distrust. … If we as a school district do not get this right, we will see the repercussions for years to come.”

McIver challenged the District to provide a constantly updated “school-by-school readiness plan,” paired with specific metrics to use in determining whether a building is safe for occupancy in the COVID era.

In response, Hite committed to providing a detailed facilities update at the board’s next meeting and reiterated that the readiness buck, or responsibility, for every one of the District’s 220-plus buildings will stop with him. “I ultimately monitor that and report up to the board,” he said.

Before voting on the plan, McIver tried to urge her colleagues to avoid using dismissive terms such as “hysterical” to describe concerned community members, but as she spoke she was quickly cut off by Wilkerson, who asked: “Can we have your vote, please?”

A timeline emerges

Under Hite’s approved plan, school will remain virtual at least through Nov. 17, which is the end of the first marking period.

“There’s nothing magical about the date,” Hite said, but it will serve as the basic target for what will be a “phased-in” return to face-to-face learning. Depending on needs and conditions, Hite said, small groups of staff and teachers could return to approved buildings before November at any time.

Teachers will participate in professional development in August, including some anti-racism work. The board adopted a revised school calendar in which the start of the student year was moved from Monday, Aug. 31, to Wednesday, Sept. 2, to give extra time for teachers to become familiar with the online tools.

August is full of deadlines: Schools must develop operations plans by Aug. 6, plans for staffing coverage by Aug. 10, and an update on facilities conditions by Aug. 15. The overall “readiness check” is due Aug. 19.


Lauren Wiley / The Notebook

Once school starts, teachers will begin with a full month of “fully developed daily lessons,” said Hite. They’ll be asked to evaluate students to gauge “learning loss and support their social and emotional needs.”

Students’ days are likewise beginning to take shape. Thursday, Hite shared daily schedules for a hypothetical 4th grader and a high school student, showing that they will receive a full day of instruction. The hope is that a clear September agenda will help bring consistency to virtual learning, in contrast to the often hit-or-miss effort in the spring.

In the fall, students’ days will start with a “morning meeting” – like a virtual homeroom – followed by scheduled blocks of time for instruction in particular subjects, punctuated by five-minute breaks and lunch. Online classes will include art, music, and physical education, he said, and the day will include whole-group activities and the opportunity for small-group discussions. Teachers will “check for understanding … and provide feedback” to students, as well as assessment, he said.

Principals will have a host of new responsibilities, such as monitoring teachers to make sure that they are engaging with students. Board members reminded Hite of principals’ concerns about those new tasks, shared last week. Member Danzy described how principals had said “they were not equipped” and “did not have the guidance they needed” and asked him how he planned to improve.

Hite said that he’d been relying on a weekly meeting with an “advisory group” of principals, but would be asking his staff to step up outreach and dig into the nitty-gritty of building management.

“You don’t know [enough] unless you are talking to them constantly,” he said.

The board also approved $348,000 in contracts with four organizations for a “healing together” initiative to work with schools on wellness and social-emotional support, including work on equity and anti-racism, for students and staff. In collaboration with city agencies, all schools will have access to behavioral health resources, Hite said,

“Those services will complement, not replace existing services,” he said, and they will be virtual as long as schooling is virtual.

Another aspect of the plan that is still being worked out is identifying and setting up “dropoff centers” around the city to accommodate students who need a place to do their schoolwork during the day. They will be located in city recreation centers, libraries, and possibly schools, Hite said.

McColgan questioned whether, in terms of risk, that was any different from having children go to school buildings and be in the same rooms with teachers.

“It’s not,” he said.

The board allowed 10 speakers on the resolution approving the reopening plan. In contrast to last week, when almost all the speakers pleaded for an all-virtual plan, several last night said they were unhappy with the lack of choice.

Most thanked the board for sending Hite back to the drawing board, but many challenged the board to engage communities better.

“I hope you meant it when you said there would be major changes in how decisions are made,” said teacher Emily Simpson. “Do you understand how many of us have a hard time placing trust in your leadership?”

In written testimony, PFT president Jerry Jordan thanked Hite for “responding to our collective outcry,” but added that the challenge is daunting, with a need for changes to everything from facilities to scheduling and curriculum, with an eye towards not just safety, but also equity and racial justice.

“I wish we were in a position to be able to say: schools are safe. … But we are not. We cannot reopen buildings … until there is a workable plan to safeguard the students and staff,” wrote Jordan.

Nicole Hunt, representing school service workers, said that the hybrid plan “at least gave children the chance for the structure” of in-person learning.

“What about students and parents who are less fortunate and don’t have access to stable internet?” she asked. “You took away people’s … right to choose what is right for their kids.”

Many children are being raised by grandparents who don’t understand the internet, and single parents “who have to go to work in underpaid jobs,” she said. They fear their children will have no place to go and will be “in the streets” instead of doing virtual school.

She said that although “we’re all scared of COVID, we cannot be ruled by fear.” Most of the people who spoke up last week for fully virtual school don’t have those issues to deal with, Hunt said. “Please don’t allow the voices of the fortunate to speak for the less fortunate.”

Robin Cooper, president of the principals’ union, the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA), was unable to register in time to speak, but she told the Notebook that the core problem for the District was that for all its layers of meetings and process, principals still have hardly any of the details they need.

“You can’t just keep flying by the seat of your pants,” Cooper said.

Among critics’ most persistent concerns is the lack of internet access for thousands of students – their exact number is unknown. Hite said that the District is surveying the household of each District student to see whether they have reliable online access, and he and Wilkerson have vowed to provide it to everyone before school starts, saying that the city and District are working with providers to make it happen.

A second, comprehensive survey is scheduled for the fall, he said, “to ask families how it is going.” That survey could cover not just online access, but also academic issues, safety and facilities concerns, and mental health, Hite said

Hite says his team will increase outreach

Hite also promised to step up his team’s “engagement” with students, staff, community members, and faith-based organizations.

“We are starting to work with principals and meet with them directly,” he said and promised more active outreach to community groups as well.

Board members noted that a lack of community engagement contributed to wide dissatisfaction with Hite’s first plan.

“This week I got to talk to a lot of different advocacy groups,” said member Mallory Fix Lopez. “The common theme was this idea of communication. … The engagement has been superficial for some groups.”

Communication must improve for plans to be properly designed and implemented, she said. “The people at the school level are the ones who have to operationalize this,” said Fix Lopez. “They have to make it work.”

Hite said that community demands for time and attention have not been easy for his team to meet. The staffers that community groups want to talk to are “the same people who are trying to put all these plans together,” Hite said. “You have to stop doing work on the plan to engage with the group.”

But he also said the District would now make an effort to expand its internal working groups to be more inclusive, in the hopes of building support for plans before they’re released, “so that we’re not having a debate when the plan is finalized.”

The role of Comcast

Hite’s commitment to outreach came as new details emerged about the District’s planning process to date, in particular the involvement of Comcast, one of the city’s leading corporate citizens. An item in July’s board agenda revealed Comcast’s involvement for the first time.

The item noted that since June, a team of management consultants provided by Comcast has overseen the District’s internal planning process, managing the District’s seven internal working groups and providing a range of cost estimates and analyses.

The Comcast-donated consultants, from the consulting firm of Ernst & Young, were provided at no cost to the District. On Thursday, the board voted to accept the donated services, valued at $345,000.

In an interview before the meeting, Board President Wilkerson called the Comcast donation “invaluable” and said that the consultants helped make up for the District’s lack of internal planning capacity, revealed vividly last year during the asbestos-driven shutdown of the Ben Franklin High School/Science Leadership Academy building. Problems with the $28 million renovation project had to be fixed to allow SLA to move in.

“One lesson of SLA-BF is that the District does an inadequate job managing complex projects,” said Wilkerson. “I’m so thankful we had the support.”

She said Philadelphia was not the only recipient of Comcast’s support. “It’s my understanding they offered this to a number of major cities … to help with planning. Without it, we’d have been sunk,” Wilkerson said.

An example of the firm’s contributions was to determine the cost of a full return to K-5 classes, Wilkerson said. “Ernst & Young helped us figure out this would end up costing $100 million we didn’t have. I’m so thankful we had the support. Without it, we’d still be out there chasing the dream of reopening K-5 full time,” she said. “And we had no idea what masks and other procurements would cost.”

The Comcast donation was approved unanimously, but board member Fix Lopez noted that the District has plenty of needs besides consulting that Comcast could address, such as assuring citywide internet access for students and providing company data to show where online access was lacking.

“Consulting is great, but we need the internet. We need data,” said Fix Lopez.

Wilkerson said she could not explain why the Comcast involvement, which formally began June 5, was only now being shared with the public.

“I have no idea. I don’t know the sequencing. This whole thing has been moving so quickly,” she said.

District officials have had numerous opportunities to mention the involvement of the consultants. The Notebook and other media outlets have asked Hite for details of his internal working groups many times, and the Comcast connection was never mentioned.

In a statement on Thursday, Hite praised the Comcast-donated team and said that Ernst & Young was “keen to support the city and District during these unprecedented times.” The firm provided “program management and financial modeling coaching and support,” as well as other services, he said.

The news of Comcast’s involvement came as a surprise to observers. Union officials who meet regularly with District officials for updates said that the role of Ernst & Young was news to them.

“Never heard of them,” said CASA’s Cooper.

“First we’ve heard of this,” said Hillary Linardopoulos, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Hite said the Ernst & Young team will continue to work with the District on “organization, alignment, and the timeliness of deliverables” through Sept. 15. A second consulting firm, Accenture, is providing academic planning support from July 27 to Sept. 4, paid by the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.

Regarding funding, Wilkerson began the meeting by urging the public to contact their U.S. senators and representatives in support of the HEROES Act, which would funnel about $70 billion to K-12 education. The bill passed the House, but the Senate and the administration have stalled it – and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants any additional emergency federal education aid to be tied to the in-person reopening of schools.

Wilkerson said that lobbying was also needed in Harrisburg. Gov. Wolf plans to distribute $100 million in additional CARES Act funding for schools in a way that would shortchange Philadelphia, because he is not following the state funding formula. Instead of $40 million, Philadelphia would only get $13 million under Wolf’s plan, she said.