Philly students could attend school this summer and stay hybrid in the fall, the superintendent says
With details to be worked out, a program for kids needing extra help would be “totally voluntary,” said Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.
Large groups of Philadelphia students — including all kindergartners and students who need extra time to pass a grade or earn high school diplomas — will likely have access to an extended school year or summer programming, Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Tuesday.
Despite teachers’ herculean efforts in this pandemic school year, many students are not making the kind of academic progress they need to, Hite said, and to compensate, the district will offer an extra marking period to begin after the school year ends for staff on June 14.
“It would be for children who are struggling to pass or to graduate,” Hite said of the extended term in a wide-ranging interview to mark the upcoming one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. All Philadelphia students last attended in-person school March 12, 2020; the first district students, about 2,600 prekindergarten through second graders, return to buildings this week for two days a week of instruction in classrooms.
The vast majority of the district’s 120,000 students remain learning virtually full time.
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It’s not yet clear how much the extended school year program will cost, who will be eligible, and how many students will opt in after a year spent learning remotely.
The program will be “totally voluntary” for both students and teachers, the superintendent said.
The district is also planning for robust summer programming that will be offered to all children finishing kindergarten this year, plus those recommended by their teachers for extra learning time. Hite hopes to offer students both academics and extracurricular activities, provided by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and other providers.
All 10th graders will have the option to attend a summer program focused on college prep work through the University of Pennsylvania, the superintendent said.
To pay for its extended learning year and summer programs, the district will dip into federal funds earmarked for programs to combat learning loss. Philadelphia is expecting hundreds of millions in COVID relief money that will wipe away the multimillion-dollar deficit it would otherwise have.
Returning the first students to classrooms is a step forward, Hite said, but more is needed. In addition to the 53 elementary schools that opened to their youngest students Monday, 45 more will open next Monday. After all elementary schools reopen to prekindergarten through second-grade students, Hite said he expects to routinely announce the return of new batches of schools, students, or grade bands coming back.
“We want to get to making a recommendation each week,” Hite said. “We want to get more elementary grades in, we need to get complex needs back in, we need to get [career and technical education] students who need certifications in.”
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Will all students, including high schoolers, be able to return for some in-person learning?
“I’m not so sure if we’re going to be able to do that,” said Hite. “We will certainly try to do that.”
Much depends on building conditions, case counts, and other factors, Hite said, but at some point, it would be counterproductive to bring students back for just a few days of in-person time.
The school system must also deal with how to administer state standardized tests, which the federal government recently said must be given, though there’s some leeway on when they can be administered, and test results can’t be used for accountability purposes.
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 are yet scheduled to return to school, and the state Education Department has said exams can’t be given virtually.
Hite hasn’t made a decision on how Philadelphia will handle the exams, but it might “wait until more children are in, and then do the assessment.” If that’s not possible because of school reopening schedules, the exams would have to be given in the fall.
“I don’t like the prospect of giving an assessment in the fall and then in the spring,” said Hite, but refusing to administer the exams is a nonstarter, as federal grant money is tied to state exam administration.
The current slow phase-in of hybrid education is an imperfect solution to the complex problems of educating 120,000 children in a pandemic, the superintendent said.
Hybrid teaching “is extremely difficult for educators to do, but at the same time, we’re trying to honor the wishes of parents who say they wanted their children to be in person with their teacher,” Hite said. “It’s one of those things that we need to navigate through while we are trying to improve our ability to serve children the best way possible.”
And though much remains to be determined about this school year, Hite is looking down the road to the fall, too. Different districts and counties have taken different approaches to social distancing, but Philadelphia is still firmly in the “stick to Center for Disease Control and Prevention” camp — if they’re in school, kids must be spaced six feet apart. (Other counties have dropped that requirement to three feet.)
While some city schools have ample space, others are bursting at the seams. Mayfair Elementary in the Northeast, for instance, enrolls 2,100 students.
Whether Philadelphia will offer full-time, five-day-a-week instruction for all students “all depends on the recommendations from the CDC,” Hite said. “If the current guidelines are in place, the answer is no, we’re not going to be able to bring all students back.”