The Philadelphia School District is promising high school seniors in-person graduation ceremonies in June, though they won’t be eligible for face-to-face learning at all this school year.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., in a letter sent to district staff, said he realized how difficult the school year has been for all, especially seniors.
Though “nothing can make up for the experience of the past year,” Hite wrote, he’s given the green light for students and families to “safely celebrate at in-person, outdoor high school graduation ceremonies as safe capacity limits and COVID-19 conditions allow for safe school gatherings.”
For the first time in more than a year, the district is also opening in-person learning for students in ninth grade and below. Currently, prekindergarten through second grade students are eligible for some face-to-face learning, and children in grades three to five and students with complex needs in grades six to eight can come back two days a week beginning April 26.
All sixth through ninth graders and high school students with complex needs can sign up to return two days a week beginning May 10, Hite announced. All staff at every school building who are not currently working from schools — absent those with approved medical exceptions to work from home — will return to buildings April 26.
But most high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors won’t be back in classrooms this school year, the district said; the May 10 return will be the last phase of the district’s reopening.
“Students not covered in [this phase of the reopening] will remain with 100% digital learning for the rest of the school year,” Hite said in the note to staff.
The superintendent has said those students who return for in-person learning and are scheduled to take standardized tests will sit for them this spring, though parents can opt their children out of exams. The Biden administration has ordered districts to administer standardized tests for data-gathering purposes only. Pennsylvania’s Education Department has given districts flexibility to give the tests either this spring or in the fall.
Some parents and teachers are furious at the idea that Philadelphia children are returning to schools for a short window and will spend a good chunk of that taking tests.
Hite last week said that giving exams in the fall was a worse option and the district had to make “a good-faith effort” to give the exams or risk losing crucial federal aid, but said “it’s also equally important for parents to know that they have the ability to opt out.”
The news came as concerns continued over the accuracy of the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, which appears to underreport positive cases. The district’s data show a 0.6% positivity rate, or 64 positive cases, and the school system says its dashboard includes “both self-reported results and district testing results.”
But Monica Lewis, a spokesperson for the district, said Monday night that the current dashboard does not yet include self-reported COVID-19 positives, but soon will.
But Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, noted known undercounts from at least two schools — Gideon and Mayfair, both buildings that had to temporarily close because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Documents obtained by The Inquirer show a report of a positive case at another school, Spruance, that is not reflected on the district dashboard.
“We have been insistent on a dashboard, but unfortunately it clearly falls short in terms of accuracy,” Jordan said in a statement. “The data on this dashboard is critically important, and it is urgent that the district share accurate information with the public.”
A crowdsourced dashboard produced by Parents United for Public Education and the Caucus of Working Educators shows 135 positive cases.
“We will naturally be evolving it as we go along,” Hite said of the dashboard, which will be updated weekly. “We were just trying to get that information up as quickly as possible.”