City students urgently need to be back in classrooms as soon as it’s safe, Mayor Jim Kenney and members of City Council told Philadelphia’s school board and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. on Thursday.
COVID-19 has kept 120,000 Philadelphia School District pupils out of school buildings since March, and there’s not yet a target date for any students to return.
Every Philadelphian has struggled with the pandemic, the mayor said, but no one has been hit harder than the poor. Many children enrolled in the district live below the poverty line.
“Our children are suffering the most without in-person access to their teachers, classmates, and extracurricular activities,” Kenney said. “We must now embrace the next challenge facing our city — helping students return to school safely and as quickly as possible.”
“There are some children who are only safe in school buildings. There are some children who only eat in school buildings,” City Councilperson Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said at the hearing, one of two per year that Council must hold.
A 9-year-old girl died in North Philadelphia after being shot in the head Wednesday morning. She and other children were left at home alone.
Hite has said he hopes some children, likely prekindergarten through second-grade students, could return to school in February.
“We are painfully aware of the price that our children are paying by not being in school,” Joyce Wilkerson, school board president, told Council.
The school board reaffirmed its commitment to change the way it does business, putting a much heavier emphasis on student outcomes and holding Hite’s feet to the fire in a more concerted way.
The board will also prioritize equity work, such as taking a hard look at who gains entry to the district’s special admit schools, which disproportionately enroll students who are white and not from low-income families.
That’s likely, board member Mallory Fix Lopez said, because some city elementary schools don’t offer the types of curricula needed to prepare students for schools like Masterman and Central, because standardized tests disadvantage kids of color and poor kids, and because some Black and brown students don’t bother applying to elite schools.
Put plainly, that’s just one of the district’s practices and policies “that we absolutely know do not support all of our students across the city,” Fix Lopez said.
(Fix Lopez also said she personally believes standardized test scores should not be used for admission to magnet schools.)
The board will also be examining why kids of color, particularly Black boys, are disciplined at higher rates than other groups of children, said Wilkerson, telling Council to expect “a much more focused and brighter light on the things that lead to different outcomes for children of color.”
City Councilmember Helen Gym asked whether the board and district would agree to hold schools harmless for population drops sustained because of the pandemic and virtual learning. School budgets are now calculated based on enrollment.
“We don’t want to harm schools’ ability to be able to woo young people back,” said Gym.
Wilkerson said the board was not yet in a position to commit to holding schools harmless for their population drops, “but what you raised is an issue we need to consider,” she said.
School buildings were also a topic of interest to City Council; the average district school is more than 70 years old, and many have serious environmental issues, such as lead paint and damaged asbestos.
Just patching crumbling schools won’t work, board members said. The vast majority of Philadelphia schools don’t currently offer an adequate modern school experience, board members said. They also alluded to a likely need to close some under-enrolled schools in coming years.
“Before we spend a dime, we need to look at rightsizing our district and building buildings for the 21st century,” Wilkerson said.
Uri Monson, the district’s chief financial officer, told Council that the school system is set to receive $565 million in federal COVID-19 relief over the next two years, money that “buys us time,” Monson said.
But it does not wipe away the structural financial issues that result from a system that cannot raise its own finances, but must rely on the city and state for the bulk of its money.
Philadelphia schools will have a $224 million deficit by 2024 and a $900 million gap if no course corrections are made, Monson said.
The district is now projecting a $31 million fund balance in the 2020-21 school year and a $48 million surplus the following year, though those numbers do not take into account expenditures that will be needed to help students make up COVID-19 learning losses.
Other districts have already decided on longer school days or years, or expanded summer options. Philadelphia has had very few summer school seats in the recent past.
“The district is looking at getting a very structured and expanded summer program,” said Wilkerson.