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Hite reviews opening week in Philly during pandemic, says annual teacher transfers may be delayed

Superintendent William Hite sitting on a wobble seat and smiling.
Superintendent William Hite, visiting a classroom before the pandemic.
Darryl Murphy/The Notebook

Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite indicated Thursday that the annual practice of moving around teachers based on actual enrollment rather than predictions will likely be delayed this year until more solid attendance information is received from schools.

Rethinking the persistent but unpopular ritual, known to educators as “leveling,” is another example of how this year’s school reopening is different from any other. Hite said that despite early glitches — a server crash on the first day, Zoom bombings in a few classrooms — the 2020 start of the school year “is going as well as can be expected” under the circumstances.

“This is messy, something we have not experienced before,” Hite told reporters in his weekly press availability. “Routines are changing dramatically for families and for educators. Given all of that, individuals have been patient and flexible and ...I attribute that to the fine work our teachers and our administrators are doing on a daily basis.”

Last week, Hite reported 82% of enrolled students had signed on for their virtual classes. He did not provide updated numbers, and said students who do not log on by Friday will be dropped from the rolls.

Schools are in touch with all of their students’ families trying to determine whether the absent students from the first week are due to a decision to enroll elsewhere, lack of internet access, or are simply declining to log on, he said.

“It could be any combination of those things,” he said.

Kindergarten registration also is way down. This year, there were 6,799 registrations for kindergarten, compared to 9,293 at this time last year, district spokeswoman Monica Lewis said.

This can wreak havoc on usual staffing; for instance, Houston Elementary School in Mount Airy is in danger of losing one teacher as a result of low kindergarten numbers. The school also could lose a third-grade teacher because third-grade numbers are down too.

Lewis said that “it’s too soon to speculate” what’s behind the trend, adding that historically kindergarten enrollment stabilizes by the end of September. Kindergarten also is not mandated in Pennsylvania.

Accurately determining school-by-school enrollment is key to transferring teachers.

It happens in October as the district determines its staffing needs based on where students actually show up. Its major purpose has always been to more efficiently allocate resources, but some teachers and parents have long maintained that it disrupts school communities and derails student learning.

This year, as school starts virtually, it is especially crucial that students maintain some sort of stability, they argue. Some parents have started a petition urging the district to abandon the practice.

Hite said that the district does not want to transfer teachers only to have to hire new ones if more students return when some in-person schooling resumes. The district is now scheduled to begin a hybrid model Nov. 17, in which most students will attend two days a week and do remote learning the rest of the time.

He did not promise to delay teacher transfers until November, but signaled if teachers are moved before then it would be due to extreme circumstances.

“Leveling is bad enough, we don’t want to do it twice,” he said. “However, if we have some teachers that have no children assigned to them or one child, we have to think about how best to use those resources. And we don’t know any of that until we see data from the schools.” This scenario could very well occur at schools where kindergarten registration has plummeted.

Hite once again urged people who lack internet access to take advantage of the city’s PHLConnectED program, through which eligible families can either receive mobile hotspots or a code through which they can obtain devices necessary to log on.

City officials said they were “still reconciling data” on whether the program has been successful in connecting students, according to a statement from the office of innovation & technology.

The office is still trying to reach families and contacting students who are on the rolls of individual teachers but have not yet logged on.

Hite also noted on Thursday that climate managers and other school officials, including principals, may start working from their buildings as early as next week to prepare for the return of some in-person learning. “There are still things we have to do in the schools,” he said, including making available laptops that have not been distributed to students and organizing textbooks and other materials.

The district’s reopening readiness dashboard reports that only 11% of school buildings have been “fully certified for ventilation” safety. But Hite said the schedule was on track for all buildings to be inspected by trained monitors before any classes resume inside. Information for individual schools is provided on the dashboard.

Hite also said he was not concerned about low utilization of city-run access centers where students can go during the day for supervision doing their schoolwork. While only 223 of more than 800 registered students showed up on Tuesday, the first day of operation, 336 showed up on Wednesday, said a spokeswoman for the city’s department of children and families — a 50% improvement.

“Individuals are trying to get into routines that are different than any of us have experienced in the past,” he said. “I’m not concerned. I think families will start to use those.” In surveys, he added, “we heard loud and clear that individuals needed a place for their children.”

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