COVID-19 in Philly: With school out for the year, Philly schools come up with distance learning plan

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite speaks during a news conference Wednesday, March 18, 2020, at City Hall (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By John N. Mitchell

PHILADELPHIA — The School District of Philadelphia is moving ahead with its plan to begin remote learning even though Gov. Tom Wolf announced Thursday that schools will not reopen this school year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“That doesn’t change what we intend to do with respect to our remote learning,” School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said on Thursday. “It does answer a question of whether or not we will be returning to a school building and that is why the remote learning was so critically important.

“We were planning for an eventual announcement of that sort already and this just allows us to plan more specifically around this issue.”

District administrators already have distributed 40,000 Chromebooks to more than 140 schools across the district, for staff at those schools to distribute to students who don’t have computers at home. Schools began distributing the laptops last week, and eight schools already have given out all their laptops.

District administrators plan to buy 10,000 more Chromebooks.

Laptops will be distributed by the schools through the end of next week. After that, Hite said, school district staff will distribute laptops from a different yet-to-be-determined location.

“That could make it very hard for families of students to then get to that place to pick up the machine,” Hite said. “It’s likely that they will have to travel longer distances than they would if they were picked up at the students’ school.”

Students who don’t have laptops will be able to use any device with a microphone and keyboard, such as an iPad or tablet, to access Google Classroom, a free web program used for teaching.

Classes — with grading and attendance — are scheduled to begin the first week of May.

In addition to providing the devices, city officials and school district administrators are working to provide access to free mobile hotspots across the city or low-cost internet options. Comcast is making Xfinity WiFi free for families in the city where Xfinity WiFi is available.

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Soon after schools closed on March 13, the school district began remote instruction but stopped it because many students do not have access to a computer or internet at home.

A 2019 survey by the district found that 45% of students in grades 3-5 have access to the internet from a home computer; that just 56% of students in grades 6-8 have similar internet access; and that this was also true for 58% of students in grades 9-12.

Principals will notify families when computers become available. Hite urged families to track updates on the School District of Philadelphia website as well as via social media.

Hite added that the district is taking numerous steps to minimize social contact and to protect the health and well-being of families and staff as staff distribute the laptops. He said that there are drive-up options available and walk-up options where social distancing measures will be enforced.

The laptops will be completely sanitized.

Hite said that teachers unfamiliar with Google Classroom are currently being trained on it. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Hite said, approximately 7,000 teachers — “about 15%” of all district teachers — were familiar with Google Classroom.

“In addition to the training, teachers will receive other professional development to make the process more efficient, less cumbersome, and as beneficial as possible to facilitate remote learning,” Hite said. “This is new for many of them.”

Also factoring into the preparation to begin online learning is a requirement from the state Department of Education that all school districts submit continuity of education plans that must be approved before online learning can proceed.

Wolf orders all Pa. schools, public and private, shuttered until school year’s end

The state prohibits an extension of the school year beyond June 30. Hite said that summer school may be moved up but as of Thursday was not certain of how soon that might begin.

Hite said that when remote learning begins it will be a continuation of the third marking period. He admitted that students would not receive “100%” of the education they would have received had schools not closed down.

“That would be a false statement,” Hite said. “However, we are keeping the third marking period open. We will be introducing new concepts that would have historically been done during the fourth marking period, which is why the continuity of education plan is so important.

“Students will have the opportunity to stay on track for graduation and promotion to the next grade level, but it will not be based on what we would have been able to do if students had not lost all of the days in between the time that we closed schools and the time that we will have a robust remote learning plan up and ready to go. There is no remote learning plan that will be able to replace the quality and teaching and learning that happens in the classroom.”

John N. Mitchell is a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared