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Here’s what you need to know about the virtual reopening of Philadelphia public schools

Exterior of The School District of Philadelphia building.

Philadelphia schools officials decided to move classes online until the end of the first marking period.

Harvey Finkle/The Notebook

After months of uncertainty, officials announced last month that the Philadelphia School District would return to classes virtually until at least Nov. 17 to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The decision to move classes online until the end of the first marking period for 125,000 students came after fierce opposition from some teachers and parents to an initial proposal, which would have involved most students attending school in person two days a week. 

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

Many questions about the upcoming school year remain. Here’s what we do know from reporting by our partners at the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. 

What could the start of school look like? 

Classes are scheduled to begin Sept. 2, two days later than expected so that teachers have extra time to become more familiar with online tools. Teachers — who are expected to be from students’ assigned school — are being asked to start the year by evaluating their students’ learning loss and social emotional needs. 

Officials are hoping remote learning will go smoother in this fall than it did in the spring. Hite expects a full day of instruction for students, starting with a “morning meeting” followed by scheduled blocks of instruction. There will be whole-group activities as well as small group work, and teachers are expected to provide feedback and assessments. 

How will we know if schools are ready for the first day of school?

Schools faced a series of deadlines to show that they are prepared for remote learning: they needed to develop operations plans by Aug. 6, plans for staffing by Aug. 10, and an update on conditions of facilities by Aug. 15. Hite promised that he would provide a detailed, school-by-school readiness plan at an Aug. 19 board meeting. 

In the school-level plans, principals must detail class schedules, staffing, teacher training, and other matters. Principals have raised many questions about these issues, and Robin Cooper, head of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, told the Notebook the members will speak at next week’s meeting. Board members heard at a joint committee meeting Thursday that just two principals had submitted their detailed opening plans so far. The deadline for plans to be approved is Aug. 21.

The district says it is using the extra time to do more work on school buildings to make sure they are ready for occupancy in November. Chief of Staff Naomi Wyatt said Thursday night that 42% of district buildings have been completely cleaned, and that ventilation assessments of all rooms will be completed by Oct. 9. Officials are collecting 250,000 masks and 19,000 units of hand sanitizer, she said, and the need for such equipment at each building will be tracked. 

Will students return to school for face-to-face instruction in November?

We don’t know whether students will return to the more than 220 school buildings after the first marking period. Officials said the city health department will help make the decision about whether students can transition to a hybrid model of learning based on the current status of the virus. 

Guidance from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recommends that counties with transmission rates of 5% or below return to in-person instruction full time, but final decisions on reopening are left to local school boards. Philadelphia’s positivity rate is right at 5%, Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Thursday, a slight trend upward from the prior weeks.  

What about the thousands of students who couldn’t connect?

Lack of internet access was an issue for many students during the spring, but Hite and other officials say they will ensure all students are connected before school starts, announcing a $17 million, two-year program that will combine easier access to temporarily free and low-cost internet and the purchase of mobile hotspots for students who are housing insecure. The district is surveying households, and is urging families to contact their schools if they need help obtaining access. 

Officials estimate that about 5% of students lacked reliable internet access during the spring remote learning. The district bought 2,500 mobile hotspots but that wasn’t enough to meet the demand. It also bought and distributed 50,000 Chromebooks and continues to provide them to families in need. Three technology support centers will be open five days a week for families to obtain Chromebooks or get help with ones they already have. 

Comcast made its public WiFi hotspots free, and the company’s $10-a-month Internet Essentials program for new low-income customers is free for 60 days. Still, critics and activists are calling on internet service providers to do more, including increasing the speeds of Internet Essentials, extending the free service period beyond two months, and opening of residential hotspots, which Comcast officials have declared impractical and technically difficult. 

Are there child care plans for parents who have to work outside of the home?

Officials are working to create “dropoff centers” around the city where students can access remote classes and do homework during the day. Hite promised more information about the centers would be released this week.

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