The Philadelphia School District’s 2021-22 calendar is shifting, shortening instructional time by adding monthly half days, a change that was made over objections from parents and the school board.
Those adjustments were made after more drastic calendar changes were proposed, voted down, proposed again, and finally pulled from Thursday’s board meeting agenda.
Previously, district officials had said they wanted to add more days for teacher training, particularly as the board calls for higher-level instruction and student achievement in schools citywide.
But parents, and some board members, said it’s not the right time to take instructional time away from children just returning to classrooms after 18 months away from in-person instruction.
In August, the board failed to muster enough votes to approve six full professional development days. Initially, the school board was to consider every-other-Friday half days at Thursday’s meeting, but that resolution was pulled because of board concerns and parent activism. .
But by Thursday morning, staff and parents were notified of calendar revisions — half days on Nov. 19, Dec. 17, Jan. 21, Feb. 18, March 18, and May 13.
“We have updated the calendar to include six (6) half days which will support district wide professional development for our educators so they can continue to improve their instructional practices for all students,” wrote Evelyn Nuñez, chief of schools.
Nuñez said the half days “allows us to continue to provide all students with the required number of instructional hours or minutes for the school year while supporting the growth and development needs of our educators.”
The half days, Nuñez said, “can create child care challenges for our families. Your child’s school will provide additional information regarding the end time for the early dismissal days, as well as the after-school extra curricular activities and programs available on those days.”
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. told the school board the new half days technically do not represent changes, since the calendar adopted by the board in March suggested early dismissal days were pending.
Hite said he understood the request for every-other-week half days was “excessive after hearing from families, particularly after coming back from COVID.”
Asking for half days every other week would have needed board approval because it technically would have taken the district under the 180-day instructional requirement, requiring a waiver from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The six half days, Hite said, did not require board approval.
Board member Mallory Fix Lopez said that while the half days were technically approved in the past, dropping them on parents in September and saying it was not a change was “an omission.”
Teacher training is important, but “I’m concerned at how we are getting information out and the confusion that could be avoided,” said Fix Lopez, parent of a child enrolled at a district school. “It’s a tiny little asterisk that me as a board member didn’t even see.”
Hite said the district would work to balance professional development needs with parent desires in future years.
“I do sincerely apologize for confusion that’s been caused,” Hite said.
Many parents were frustrated by the shift.
“Haven’t children and families been through enough in the last 18 months? Why are additional PDs (professional development days) so important that the entire calendar needs to be altered right now as we resume in-person instruction? What students need is to have stability, with as much in-person instruction to make up for what they’ve missed academically and socially during the pandemic,” parent Jenny Aiello wrote in testimony read to the board.
The superintendent shed some light on new city health department guidelines that both relax guidelines for COVID-19 school closures and also call on weekly testing for asymptomatic unvaccinated students — essentially, most of the district’s 120,000 pupils.
“We are reviewing that guidance along with our colleagues at PDPH (Philadelphia Department of Public Health) and will adjust our strategies accordingly,” Hite said. He indicated that school nurses, already overburdened with their regular workload plus COVID-19 contact tracing and other pandemic-related duties, will not be asked to perform that testing. Instead, the district will use an outside company or companies to test students.
Also, the school board Thursday night approved spending up to $4 million to add contract nurses and other health workers to supplement school nurses.
It’s not clear when those workers will be added to help nurses, who have reported overwhelming workloads and, in some cases, a dearth of COVID-19 tests and other supplies. Nurses have said they are being asked to drive to central office to pick up supplies.
Hite said that will change.
“We’re overnighting those supplies to schools. We are delivering those things to individual schools,” the superintendent said.
Several school nurses contacted by The Inquirer on Thursday night said tests sent via mail arrived crushed, were expired, or were never received.
The superintendent also updated the district’s messy transportation system, hit hard by a national shortage of school bus drivers. Students across the city are arriving to school late or not reporting at all because of the shortage in bus drivers.
Hite had said he reached out to both the state for possible help from the Pennsylvania National Guard and to Amazon for help with logistics and drivers.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s office, Hite said, indicated using the National Guard ”wasn’t something they were in favor of.”
Amazon representatives said their drivers do not have the necessary commercial driver’s licenses needed to drive buses, “but they do have logistics support that they can provide to the district and they did indicate their desire to do that,” Hite said.
The board also approved the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract, which will boost the pay of 13,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, and other school workers by 9% over three years.