Philly high schools should start later, Hite says; massive schedule changes are ‘evolving’
“What concerns me is making sure we can transport children and get them to school on time,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said.
High school students should start their days later, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Thursday — contradicting proposed new schedules presented to schools this week that would have most adolescents reporting to school at 7:30, as much as two hours earlier than they do now.
“Our original goal was to have high schools on the later schedule,” Hite said at a news conference. He said that he has not seen the schedules sent to schools Monday but that they “probably have evolved to a geographic set of circumstances.”
The district is proposing three standard start times in changes that would affect nearly everyone in the 120,000-student district. Philadelphia provides bus transportation to about 40,000 children in district, charter, and nonpublic schools.
According to a draft of the new timetables obtained by The Inquirer, schools would begin at 7:30, 8:15, or 9 a.m., and most middle and high schools would start at 7:30, earlier than most do now. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended adolescents not begin school before 8:30, and many suburban districts have shifted start times accordingly.
Philadelphia schools have traditionally had latitude to set their own start and end times, resulting in 20 different schedules across the district. Hite said Thursday that the goal was to make uniform schedules, in part to “make our transportation services more efficient.” Districts across the country have had trouble attracting bus drivers.
Hite stressed that the changes were not final.
“Schools have a great deal of flexibility here, and certainly their ability to provide feedback could redirect our approach,” the superintendent said. “The one thing that we are also evolving to is times that work best for our schools and our communities.”
Each school’s building committee, made up of the principal and key staffers, had to decide by Tuesday whether to accept the proposed schedule or formally object to it, triggering a process spelled out in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract for settling disputes between the district and union. It’s not clear how many schools rejected their schedules.
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No further feedback has been sought from staff to date, and the changes have not yet been presented to families.
Some schedule changes were instituted this year for schools that returned for in-person learning. They were necessary, in part, to allow for buses to have time for COVID-19 cleaning protocols and social distancing on buses, and the PFT agreed to them as a one-time measure because of the pandemic, union officials said.
Hite said the district is planning for three feet of distancing on buses, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends, and for the cleaning protocols to remain in place.
He said the changes would also help students spend less time on buses.
“What concerns me is making sure we can transport children and get them to school on time,” Hite said. “There was no other way you can do that and do the social distancing and mitigation strategies. You could not do that with 20 different bell schedules all around the School District.”
The bus driver shortage is also a major concern, the superintendent said.
“We have to guarantee that we can transport children and get them to school on time,” said Hite.
Hours later, Hite fielded questions about the schedule changes from the school board, which met Thursday night.
Mallory Fix Lopez, parent of an incoming child who will start kindergarten at a district school in the fall, said it felt “really late in the game” to be weighing such significant changes. Families are currently being surveyed about their feelings about what school will look like in the fall, but there are no questions about schedule shifts.
“I wouldn’t want to default against the science for a logistical issue that might impact a smaller population than larger,” Fix Lopez said.
The board Thursday night adopted a $3.2 billion budget helped in large part by an infusion of funds from the federal relief package. The vote was 7-1, with Angela McIver the only board member against.
Chief financial officer Uri Monson said the budget was slightly different from an earlier picture presented to the board, helped by $48.1 million in the city’s real estate tax estimate and a $6.7 million boost in its business use and occupancy tax.
Those changes mean that the Philadelphia School District, alone in Pennsylvania in its inability to raise its own revenue, will not have a structural deficit until 2026, when it projects a $215 million budget gap. The school system had previously predicted it would hit deficit status in 2025.
The 2021-22 budget comes with a question mark, though: It does not include any new funds for new contracts. Pacts with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and other unions expire this summer.