Every student in Pennsylvania is eligible to repeat a grade to make up for COVID-19 learning losses, but families who want to exercise that right have to move quickly.
Legislation signed by Gov. Tom Wolf last week gives parents until July 15 to notify schools of their intention to have their children take advantage of the option. The new law, known as Act 66, also gives students with disabilities who turned 21 during the 2020-21 school year the opportunity to stay for another year.
Pennsylvania is one of a number of states that have passed such laws.
The pandemic scrambled learning for public schools across Pennsylvania; in most districts, children attended school virtually for much of the year. Some children, such as 10th through 12th graders in Philadelphia and students in the Southeast Delco School District, never set foot inside a classroom.
Educators did their best to adapt, but there will be gaps in the fall, say experts, who also generally agree that schools should not have students repeat a grade except in rare circumstances.
Philadelphia parent Heidi Allen’s son fits that bill, she said. The boy, who has multiple disabilities, was a kindergartner in the Philadelphia School District this past school year. It was a struggle to get him to sit for online school, let alone retain material in a crucial year of schooling.
“Virtual just did not work, he didn’t really have a kindergarten year — he lost a year of school,” said Allen. “It’s no one’s fault, but it happened, and my kid isn’t going to be the kid that makes up two years in one year.”
The law, Allen said, is a godsend for her family and others.
“This could really help a lot of people,” she said.
The timing is tricky — families have just a week left to make the decision, and many do not know the opportunity exists. Advocates are trying to spread the word and fielding questions from people trying to get up to speed about the new law, said Margie Wakelin, an attorney at the Education Law Center.
“It’s almost a frenzy level of concern” because of the tight turnaround and long-term implications, Wakelin said.
In many cases, children will be eligible for support designed to catch them up paid for by billions in federal COVID-19 relief money, but retention is also a possibility.
“Whether retention is the right option for students in order to address loss of educational opportunity during this last year is a larger question and one that we’re really cautioning families to think about,” Wakelin said.
Syrita Powers of West Philadelphia is thinking hard. Her three girls all have special needs and struggled to different degrees with a mostly virtual Philadelphia School District year, but the calculus is different for each of them.
Madison, who just finished sixth grade, is moving on to seventh as scheduled.
“She said, ‘Please don’t hold me back,’” said Powers. “It would be a negative for her.”
Georgia, a fourth grader who is nonverbal, is definitely going to repeat.
“Is she really prepared with skills to go into the middle school building when she lost almost a year and a half of school? I feel like we would be throwing her into a storm, and it makes sense to hold her back,” said Powers.
Powers and her husband haven’t decided what’s best for Logan, their youngest, who just finished second grade. She lost skills, but “I think she can catch up a little easier,” Powers said.
For now, Powers plans to submit the retention form for Logan, even if she changes her mind before school starts. Advocates say reserving the right is a good plan for parents who aren’t yet sure what to do.
Kimberly Caputo, a lawyer who represents families in special-education cases, worries that little information has been shared about the law, especially the provision giving older students with disabilities an extra year of school.
“That’s such a fragile, needy cohort,” said Caputo. “One more year to learn how to power your electric wheelchair is a really valuable year. One more year to get three more phrases on your communication device is a really valuable year.”
Maureen Fratantoni wishes she had more notice about the law. Her son James, who has autism, just turned 21 and aged out of the Philadelphia School District. He received his diploma last month.
“I think James would have benefited from some extra educational supports, plus life skills to live independently,” said Fratantoni, who lives in South Philadelphia.
Now, James is interviewing for a job with the Eagles and Fratantoni is trying to navigate applying for supports for him through the state. She’s not going to apply for the extra school year for James but wishes the option was better publicized for others.
Anna Perng, cofounder of the Chinatown Disability Advocacy Project, is reaching out in every way she can think of to notify families of their options. Many schools and districts have not yet alerted families of their rights.
“Ninety-nine percent of Philadelphia families won’t know about this,” Perng said. “This new law could benefit many students, not just students with disabilities.”
Philadelphia School District officials did not return calls for comment.
Families new to the United States encountered challenges as they struggled to navigate an unfamiliar school system and figure out new online platforms without face-to-face access to staff who spoke their language.
“There are students who simply didn’t log in all year who didn’t have reliable internet, and a concern for me and other advocates is to pass them on without making sure that they have the skills and knowledge they need to go on,” Perng said.
Parents who want to have their children repeat a grade or have 21-year-olds with disabilities stay in school an extra year must submit the form found on the state’s website to their child’s school, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
If parents miss the deadline, it’s up to the school or district to figure out next steps, according to the state.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.