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‘We are not learning enough’: In marathon meeting, Philly school board gets an earful

The board listened to hours of impassioned testimony that underscored how COVID-19 has challenged and shaped this school year.

Students, parents and teachers sounded off — mostly about COVID-19 and school reopening — in a meeting Thursday night.
Students, parents and teachers sounded off — mostly about COVID-19 and school reopening — in a meeting Thursday night.Read moreKristen A. Graham

Mason Seder, a sixth grader at McCall Elementary in Center City, wants to go back to school. So he took his case to the Philadelphia school board Thursday night.

Virtual learning, Mason said, “has been a struggle, and we are not learning enough, and our grades, motivation, and mental health are hurting, and this is only one reason we need full in-person school in the fall, and at least hybrid learning for everyone now.”

In a marathon public session devoted solely to hearing from Philadelphia students, parents, teachers, and community members, the board listened to hours of impassioned testimony that underscored how COVID-19 has challenged and shaped this school year.

A number of students pleaded with the board to speed up building reopenings. To date, 98 elementary schools have reopened to some prekindergarten through second-grade students for hybrid learning; 35 more schools will reopen to those grades Monday. There are no return dates set for students in third through 12th grades.

Most Philadelphia students have been learning virtually for more than a year.

Abigail Gorman, a student at Girard Academic Music Program, a South Philadelphia magnet that serves fifth through 12th graders, said she’s struggled to make friends in this virtual year. Remote learning is tough. Gorman said she believes the city and district have their priorities out of order.

“You can do almost anything except go to a public school in person,” Gorman said. “Is this really the best we can do?”

Marshall Fong, a parent whose child attends Kirkbride Elementary in South Philadelphia, said it’s tough to watch Philadelphia children learn virtually while schools in other districts come closer to full reopening.

“Philadelphia students are being forced into a disadvantage they will carry for the rest of their lives,” Fong said. “Fully open our schools. Fully open our schools now.”

Two board members said they appreciated the urgency around reopening.

Reginald Streater, a new board member and parent of children in district schools, said his kids “beg and claw” to return to their classrooms. “I understand,” Streater said. “I feel your pain, to the children and to the parents.”

Board member Maria McColgan, a child-abuse pediatrician, said she’s beyond alarmed at the effects of having school buildings closed to most children.

“Our hospitals are overwhelmed by the mental health admissions because of kids being so socially isolated for so long,” McColgan said. “Our students’ health depends on them going back to school.”

But those calling for a swift reopening were not the only voices. Others said the district was foolish to attempt reopening.

“Quick newsflash, just because some teachers became vaccinated, this global pandemic didn’t end. There remain neighborhoods in this city with positivity rates above 15%,” said John Stuetz, a teacher at Mayfair Elementary, which opened March 8 and temporarily closed because of COVID-19 cases this week.

Stuetz called the hybrid model, which only about a third of eligible families have opted into, a “farce,” saying it has hurt students’ emotional health and “also prevented all of us from prioritizing the improvement of digital learning. We are teachers, not firefighters; yet you have once again asked us to put out a fire, with no extinguisher in sight.”

Some teachers and parents asked the district to do better in communicating reopening plans with the community, and to include more community voices in decision-making.

“In a system with no foundation of trust, the only way forward is full, painstaking transparency,” said Zoe Rooney, a district parent and teacher. “In the immediate, that means we need a comprehensive COVID testing dashboard, like those available in other districts, that includes the number of tests and positives in each school each week and cumulatively, broken down for students and for staff.”

Kristyn McCrohan, a seventh-grade teacher at Mayfair Elementary, urged the board to direct officials not to administer standardized tests this year. Her students are already taking too many tests, and McCrohan questioned the value of tests that students take with siblings on their laps, living in unstable environments, or at home alone for 11 hours at a time.

“Yes, we need data,” McCrohan said. “Yes, we need to see where learning loss — that new buzzword — has occurred. But how valid is this data? It is causing further anxiety for students and taking away valuable time from sustaining relationships in an already difficult environment.”

» READ MORE: Philly students could attend school this summer and stay hybrid in the fall, the superintendent says

The federal government has said standardized tests must be given this year, though they cannot be used to penalize districts. In Pennsylvania, students in grades three through eight take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and 11th graders take Keystone Exams. None of those children have return dates to school buildings, and exams cannot be given virtually.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said he has not yet decided how the exams will be administered — whether some will be given as students return, this spring, or whether all will be delayed until the fall.

Board member Angela McIver said she stood with McCrohan and those who feared what testing would do to kids who’ve already been traumatized by a pandemic and a year out of school buildings.

“As an individual board member, I stand with you against PSSA testing, and I want our board and our district to fight it,” McIver said.

Several district principals also took a stand Thursday night, calling on the district to make sure every school has key positions including assistant principal, climate manager, and math and literacy lead teachers. Now, the district leaves such allocations up to schools, who often don’t have the funds to pay for all of them.

“We are not here asking for the sun and the stars, we are asking for basic resources,” said Kimberly Ellerbee, the principal of Powel Elementary in West Philadelphia.

“Schools in whiter neighboring districts recognize the need for these critical positions, and their students are the beneficiaries of this commitment,” said Lauren Overton, the principal of Penn Alexander Elementary in West Philadelphia. “Many of the charter schools within the city are structured to include these positions and more. Despite this year after year, you expect schools to do more with less. We can simply look to the district’s data for literacy and math to see what is missing.”

The board heard poignant testimony from Rita Chen, a student at Mayfair Elementary, who asked the district to protect its Asian American students. Chen, a seventh grader, said she and other students are “scared to go back to school in fear of being bullied, injured, or killed. People are angry for COVID and quarantine. People are looking for someone to blame. This is making Asian American students even more of a target.”

Chen said Asian students need more support: ”The fact that they do not feel safe in school means we need to start making changes.”