The School District of Philadelphia unveiled its proposal for opening schools this fall at the Board of Education’s action meeting, held via teleconference on Thursday, July 23, to much criticism from the community.
Under the hybrid learning plan, most students would spend two days per week in face-to-face classes, while the other three days would be spent online. To decrease the number of students in schools at any given time, students would be split into two cohorts, one that attends in-person classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, and one that attends classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Classroom capacities are limited to 25 people, and all students will be expected to wear masks.
Pre-k and special needs students would spend Monday through Thursday in face-to-face classes, and everyone in the district would learn digitally on Fridays.
Students also have the option of enrolling in the district’s planned digital academy, an online-only option.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, more than 100 parents, students, and principals voiced their concerns about hastily reopening schools, and many called for the district to begin the school year fully online, or to at least engage in more detailed planning.
“The School District’s plan for advancing education safely is completely inadequate,” said Susan Crosby, a deputy city solicitor and parent of a public elementary school student. “It was apparently developed without the input of the teacher union and without a plan how to properly fund the recommendations.”
The meeting started at 4 p.m. and did not end until well after midnight. Superintendent William Hite introduced the district’s plan, saying it balanced health and safety, the student experience, and community needs.
“A goal for the first day of school is to transition safely to a hybrid model, in which students engage in both face-to-face and digital learning,” he said.
Public comments extended on into the night, with nearly every speaker criticizing details of the plan, lack of funding for its implementation, and lack of consideration for what a push to open schools could mean for the spread of coronavirus in the community.
At the end of public comments, Hite asked the board for more time to reconsider the district’s plan. The board voted 6-2 to recess the meeting and reconvene in one week to vote on a revised proposal.
“We all understand that our world has been shifting constantly and rapidly,” said Dr. Joyce Wilkerson, president of the Board of Education. “Our plans must also be fluid, and it must be grounded in our absolute best understanding of health and science.”
The cornerstone of the district’s plan is a digital academy, which will deliver grade-level course content online. Students can elect to enroll in the digital academy and not spend any time in an in-person class.
Students who register for the digital academy commit to participating in the program for the first two quarters of the 2020-2021 academic year, September through December.
Several parents were concerned about what the digital academy would mean for staffing in their neighborhood school in subsequent years.
“It was implied that there would be leveling and staff movement based on enrollment in the digital academy, which is extremely concerning,” said Claire Murphy, whose daughter was set to start kindergarten at Henry H. Houston Elementary School in September. “Staying, enrolling, and supporting our neighborhood school, and transitioning back when it’s safe, would be our only reason for choosing the digital academy instead of withdrawing.”
Students enrolled in the digital academy will not have the option of participating in any in-person school-based activities, including extracurriculars, according to Hite.
“Respectfully, the digital academy is terrible,” said Stephanie King, a parent of a student at Gen. Philip Kearny Elementary School. “How will you keep students connected to their school community?”
Parents with younger children expressed concerns over what a mostly digital school experience would mean for their child’s development.
“A kindergartner should not and would not do all of their school work at a computer for hours,” Murphy said. “I have a lot of faith that the kindergarten teachers at her school would know this, but we got absolutely no details on this proposed digital program.”
For Murphy, the logistics of a digital school program might not meet the development and educational needs of the district’s youngest children.
“There should be options for kindergarten students to use real books, and do writing and drawing on paper,” she said. “And do hands-on art projects. They should be in individual small groups at their level, and not have strict video call attendance requirements.”
Not everyone was opposed to the digital academy, especially parents with older children who managed the district’s limited transition online when schools closed in March. Registration for the digital academy opened on July 22, and 2,000 students enrolled on the first day, according to Hite. Parents have until Aug. 4 to enroll their students.
Several commenters in support of the digital academy noted that it lowered teachers’ chances of COVID-19 exposure and lessened the likelihood that schools would contribute to community spread.
“I strongly believe that if we value the lives of our learning community, then we will not reopen schools,” said Alexandria Henry, a teacher.
Many commenters noted that serving the wide range of student needs with a single digital platform is difficult, if not impossible. Stanley Goa, a student at Gen. George A. McCall Elementary and Middle School, said that more technical classes, such as biology and algebra, would be hard to learn online.
Goa offered his own plan.
“We have a teacher who teaches in-person and the school district can buy cameras, put them in the back of classrooms, and students who want to do the digital academy can do it that way,” he said.
In order to speak during the public comment session, members of the public had to submit a speaker request form on the School District of Philadelphia’s website or leave a voicemail with the district no later than 4 p.m. on July 22.
The district did not limit the number of speakers, but each testimony was held to three minutes.
Principals weighed in during the public comment session as well, expressing support for faculty and staff. The plan required teachers to not only teach, but to monitor social distancing and sanitation in schools.
“I want everyone to be mindful of the monumental ask of our teachers, who will literally be asked to fight this pandemic every minute while in school,” said Kayla Johnstone, principal of Franklin S. Edmonds Elementary School.
Earlier this year, Murphy and her daughter were looking forward to in-person school, but, like other parents who have watched planning play out over the summer, she is not sure what she will do.
“We have been very involved in the school and planned on her starting this fall,” she said. “But now we just don’t think that’s safe for children, teachers, or household members.”
She still wants to support public schools, though.
“We have been hopeful of the digital option because it originally sounded like we could remain enrolled at our school and be part of the community while staying safe at home,” Murphy said. “I worry that a lot of parents who have other options will just withdraw from the district.”
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