Rudecina García rises at 4 a.m. to cook meals her three boys will eat while she works long hours as a home-health aide. While García is away, a friend watches the children in the family’s North Kensington home.
The caregiver is loving, but cannot read or write in English or Spanish, leaving the 13-, 12-, and 10-year-olds to fend for themselves when it comes to schoolwork. The children got Chromebooks from Lewis Elkin Elementary, their neighborhood school, but the internet connection is spotty, so García pays $125 monthly for phones with data plans so the boys can complete assignments.
Still, she knows her children, especially the younger two, frequently skip logging in.
“I’ve tried everything I can to be responsible with them and for them to be responsible with their teachers," García said, "but it’s hard for a single mother to guarantee my kids’ education under these circumstances.”
Ten weeks into distance learning forced by the pandemic, the Philadelphia School District registers just 61% of students attending school on an average day, with 53% of elementary school children making daily contact and 74% of middle and high schoolers logging on, officials said Friday. That’s well short of the 92% attendance rate the district had during the 2018-19 school year.
The reasons behind the spotty participation are complicated: In families like García’s, parents might be essential workers or students themselves, or have child-care and technology challenges. Another factor is the district’s grading policy — students’ final grades for the year won’t be lower than they were earning on March 13, the last day before the coronavirus abruptly closed schools. Then there’s the stress and disruption that came with the loss of the routine and social interaction in classrooms and school buildings.
The school system’s priority during the pandemic has been making sure children are safe. But as Philadelphia and districts nationwide grapple with how and when to start the next school year, officials say identifying solutions to the engagement problem are critical.
“Starting a year with this is going to be very different than switching to it in the middle of the year,” Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in an interview. He said he hopes to give staff and families concrete answers by mid-July about what the 2020-21 school year will look like but said the district is “definitely going to have to continue our training and development.”
Experts say there’s no one way to track attendance or national data, and other big city districts contacted by The Inquirer provided varying measures: Boston reported average daily attendance last week of 84%, while Baltimore said that its numbers “have fluctuated” but that it had “seen participation as high as 85%.” New York reports a 93% “average daily interaction” rate since it began remote instruction, and Miami-Dade’s average daily attendance typically sits between 91% and 93%.
Districts like Seattle and Los Angeles said they were not taking attendance, but said the share of students logging on to online platforms had been increasing.
One challenge in Philadelphia: the amount of time it took to prepare a remote-learning plan and equip students. The district first had to buy and distribute laptops to 81,000 students. New teacher-led instruction didn’t begin until May 4, roughly six weeks after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered schools statewide to close.
“The greater the lag in the time off, the harder it is to engage students,” said Caroline Watts, director of school and community engagement at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
Stephen Flemming sees that firsthand. An English teacher at Martin Luther King High School, Flemming says about 25 of his 90 students have participated regularly during the shutdown. Many who don’t participate cite the challenges of working essential jobs themselves, or taking care of siblings while parents are working.
Others students don’t see the sense in logging on when they won’t be penalized for no-shows.
“One came straight out and told me: He hates school and he doesn’t care about participating,” Flemming said.
There is pressure to improve attendance, Flemming said, so some teachers encourage students just to log into Google Classroom, the district’s online platform, even if they never turn in an assignment. Students in middle and high schools record their own participation; at the elementary level, teachers are responsible for attendance.
One Northwest Philadelphia elementary schoolteacher, who spoke on the condition she not be identified for fear of reprisal, said only about a third of her students have been participating. She said one student who does not log on or complete paper packets has no reliable internet access. The parent of another that told her she simply wasn’t going to have her child do the work.
The Northwest teacher tries to keep things as normal as possible for students who do participate. She is reviewing past lessons, not teaching any new material.
She said she took advantage of the district’s optional professional development but like 85% of teachers in the system had not regularly used online instruction tools before the pandemic.
She also said she’s talked with other district teachers about the quality of education, and all agree: “None of us think this is meaningful.”
Hite has said the remote instruction this spring will not measure up to what educators would have been able to deliver if the school year had not been interrupted. The online learning occurring now cannot replace face-to-face teaching.
“Success is if we can reduce the amount of regression that will occur because children have been out of school this long,” he told The Inquirer. “What we’re trying to do is balance a set of unique circumstances with trying to keep children engaged in learning for as long as we possibly can.”
(Hite also said that no directives should be going out to have students mark themselves present, regardless of work completion; meaningful interaction is the goal.)
In a virtual meeting this month with his student advisory board, Hite was struck, he said, by students describing large gaps in the kinds of assignments they were getting. One young man was spellbound by an art assignment; a young woman was turned off by worksheets that seemed like busywork.
“One of the things that we’re going to have to get a lot better at is what are we asking our young people to do to increase their level of engagement,” the superintendent said.
Milagros Rodríguez, the mother of a fourth grader at Elkin Elementary, is hopeful that in-school classes will resume in the fall for her daughter and 5-year-old son, who will enter kindergarten. But if risks persist, Rodríguez prefers virtual sessions.
The pandemic is very real for Rodríguez, who reluctantly left her children in North Philadelphia with her mother to fly to their native Dominican Republic, where Rodríguez is caring for a sister with COVID-19. Her daughter is an eager student, and Rodríguez keeps track of the girl’s work remotely, but computer and internet problems kept her from connecting for two weeks.
“We are not doing well," Rodríguez said, “because there is too much to deal with and very few who can take responsibility for it.”