School’s out. We know that. The rest of it is a mess. | John L. Micek

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My daughter was off school on Monday. For some reason.

Just days after Gov. Tom Wolf declared that he was shuttering Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts until the end of the school year, Pennsylvania’s public schools were acting like school was in session by giving students a well-deserved day off from all the days off they’ve already had since Pennsylvania went into lockdown a month ago.

And as a parent, sitting here wondering how to salvage what’s left of my bright 14-year-old’s freshman year with a mix of classwork assigned by her local school district; mandated reading time here at home, limited walks, current events discussions over dinner, and some quality Dad/daughter time spent watching ancient history documentaries on YouTube and the History Channel, I know one thing for sure: I am not remotely qualified to homeschool my child. And my hat is doffed to all those parents who take it upon themselves to do so.

But it also feels like I’m not doing any worse at the moment than Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, which have been frustratingly scattershot in their approach to public education during the pandemic. For my daughter, casual review ended last week, with more formalized instruction now underway. But even that has seemed improvised, at best.

Now, I’ll grant that Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, school superintendents, principals and classroom teachers are up against some challenging circumstances. But it’s hard to get around the perception that the state just wasn’t serious in their preparations.

In a press call with journalists last week, Rivera said there was a “strong expectation” that districts would offer “virtual instruction that includes mandatory attendance and graded assignments,” WHYY-FM reported.

But, Rivera added, he doesn’t “have the authority to mandate continuity of education by law,” which makes one wonder about the utility of an education secretary if he/she doesn’t have that authority. Or why that doesn’t exist in law in the first place.

The pandemic has also exposed yawning gaps in access to technology that enables online learning. We know that broadband access statewide is spotty. And not every kid can afford a computer.

In Philadelphia, the school district stepped in, and with an assist from Comcast, issued students thousands of ChromeBooks. The cable giant, which has a history of customer service worse than that of the Galactic Empire, also allowed free access to its xFinity WiFi service, according to our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune.

As WHYY-FM reports, concerns about kids being left behind, and a fear of litigation, made districts leery about offering online education. The tone shifted after the U.S. Education Department offered reassurances about the special education-related litigation fears.

Nonetheless, that cost time. And as WHYY-FM further reports, Philadelphia doesn’t expect review learning to start in city schools until April 20.

And the district won’t start taking attendance or handing out grades until May 4 — roughly a month before the current school year ends. In Pittsburgh, district officials put off the start of online learning until April 22, our partners at the Pittsburgh Current reported. Students and teachers will start getting laptops and other tech this week, the Current reported.

At a Capitol press conference last April, public school officials confidently declared that Pennsylvania didn’t need cyber-charter schools because the districts were more than prepared and more than qualified to offer online learning.

Viewed through the prism of where we are right now, those pronouncements now seem wildly optimistic.

In the midst of all this, cyber-charters, as badly flawed as they are, have controversially continued to offer instruction during the statewide shutdown, disturbing students’ lives not at all. Brick-and-mortar public school administrators, worried about competition and losing more revenue, tried to get them shut down, WHYY-FM reported.

Meanwhile, there are parents across the commonwealth, myself included, wondering, among other things, whether this lack of preparation is going to set back our children’s progress in the next school year; whether they’ll get blitzed by all the standardized testing next year that’s been put off this year, and, most importantly, if the education community and policymakers will take the lessons of the pandemic to heart and get serious about both online education and closing the technology gap to ensure equal access for all students.

Right now, the fault lines are laid bare. And there’s no papering them over.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press