Philadelphia School District students will begin formal remote, computer-based instruction next week — 38 days after they were last in classrooms.
They won’t begin learning new material until May 4, 52 days after in-person school was dismissed March 13 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
That gap, officials say, is due in large part to a lack of technology and internet access for many in a school system where roughly 75% of students live below the poverty line. Inventorying existing technology, then purchasing Chromebooks and putting them in students’ hands, was cumbersome and complicated.
But an article published this month in the national research and opinion journal Education Next took issue with the district’s count of students who lacked internet access, and said the long lag time between in-person and digital instruction has disadvantaged impoverished students, a point echoed by some advocates and parents.
Monica Lewis, district spokesperson, said the district has made an all-out effort to ensure that students had the opportunity to learn even when schools were closed, noting that it has made optional paper packets available for students since just after the closure.
“We have to put this in perspective: We have obstacles that other districts don’t have, and we’ve been doing everything that we can to make sure that our students have the education they need,” said Lewis.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said that 59% of pupils in grades three to eight lack computers at home, as do 49% of high school students.
Paul von Hippel, the Education Next study’s author and an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, took issue with those numbers, drawn from the district’s own student survey. Another internal measure, the district’s parental survey, suggests 91% of those who responded said they had internet service at home. Another source, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, said 80% of households covered by the city school system had internet access and 88% had access to more than one computing device.
Von Hippel said he believes the real number is somewhere in the middle, but the larger points are that Philadelphia waited too long to get children online, and that some children will always lack access — even on May 4, when new learning is supposed to begin.
“At some point, you have to decide that we have enough kids online that we should keep learning going,” said von Hippel, who said he became aware of Philadelphia’s situation as he researched the effects of school closures nationally. “They’re letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Many large urban school systems are in Philadelphia’s boat, forced to find ways to buy tens of thousands of computers quickly and distribute them to children. New York City’s district, the largest in the United States, had launched remote learning by March 23. Local districts’ plans have varied widely. Cheltenham began remote instruction Monday; other school systems, like Downingtown, had no interruption in academic offerings.
Philadelphia’s long pause “worries me,” von Hippel said. “We know from past research what happens when kids miss two months of school. It’s very concerning. Philadelphia is already behind other districts in achievement. Can we really let that gap grow?”
Also at issue is the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s role in what remote learning looked like. Early guidance from the Commonwealth did not mandate that districts offer education during coronavirus shutdowns, and decreed that districts could not offer instruction to some students unless all were able to access it.
Philadelphia specifically instructed teachers not to offer remote instruction, in a March 17 memo to principals, then clarified its stance a day later, saying teachers did not have to do so but could teach as long as no assignments were mandatory or graded. When Pennsylvania announced new guidance the next week, lifting the “no instruction for some but not all” rule, that freed the district to move forward with a technology plan, Hite has said.
Pennsylvania’s early directive stemmed from a fear of lawsuits over the rights of students with special needs and English-language learners, said Donna Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth, but it did not serve districts well.
“The state stopped everybody in their tracks for three weeks,” said Cooper, whose organization launched a campaign urging Philadelphia and other districts to fully teach children during the coronavirus closures. “I would have used those three weeks for planning. Some districts thought, ‘This is it, school’s over.'”
Philadelphia is hampered by infrastructure issues and the challenges associated with educating large numbers of needy kids, Cooper said, but the district also “made the wrong assumption about whether movement was possible.”
Lewis, the district spokesperson, said the school system has been diligent about moving its students toward digital learning since the shutdown, with administrators acting urgently to set the framework for digital learning.
“We were prepared to address some type of learning throughout the course of the closure,” Lewis said. “We’ve done everything possible. There’s not been a day where we sat around twiddling our thumbs.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.