Whenever children are allowed to return to schools, they will almost certainly need to wear masks, Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Thursday.
Referring to the color-coded system Gov. Tom Wolf introduced this week for reopening the state amid the coronavirus pandemic, Hite, in a call with reporters, said the directions were clear.
“In the governor’s plan, it had the wearing of masks into the late fall,” said Hite. “We are planning as if … we would need masks for young people to show up for school.”
Pennsylvania officials have ordered in-person classes canceled for the remainder of the school year, and it’s not yet clear whether students who qualify will be able to attend in-person summer school or even whether school doors will open in the fall.
Hite also said Philadelphia, which has distributed 75,000 Chromebooks to students to date, will not be able to purchase enough mobile hot spots — small, portable devices that create a wireless connection by using the data of a smartphone, computer or tablet.
Some families who lack internet access will be able to get connected for free, but some students, particularly those who live in homeless shelters or in other situations where wireless networks cannot be installed, will have trouble connecting to their teachers via the internet. Hite said numbers are not yet firm, but estimated that thousands will be in that category.
But due to short supplies of mobile hot spots and fierce competition among buyers, the demand will outstrip the supply.
The district has been told “if we were lucky, we could get a couple of thousand,” Hite said.
Students who cannot access materials online will still have access to paper packets of work, and the district will not penalize children for circumstances beyond their control, the superintendent said.
Formal, teacher-led digital learning began in Philadelphia this week. New material will be introduced beginning May 4.
Hite, in the media briefing, also warned that the pandemic is changing the district’s budget picture significantly.
The district has a healthy fund balance this year and will likely be able to absorb revenue hits it is already taking, but should the state choose to use federal stimulus funds to fill its budget gap rather than distribute new funds to school districts and others, Philadelphia might have to cut its budget.
The district could receive up to $130 million of federal stimulus funds, Hite said. Its 2020-21 budget is projected to be $3.4 billion.
The superintendent and Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson will present the district’s full budget later Thursday.