Remote learning gains steam in Pennsylvania’s largest school districts

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The White House increased pressure this month on schools to hold in-person classes in the fall, threatening to cut off federal funding to districts that failed to open their doors five days a week.

But in Pennsylvania, where officials warn that a modest summertime surge in COVID-19 cases could turn into a serious outbreak, the leaders of some of the state’s largest school districts started to issue a simple message: “no can do.”

In Philadelphia, administrators tapped the brakes late Thursday on a plan to open school for two days a week this fall, after more than 100 members of the public said it would put teachers and students in danger and fail to provide a strong education. They urged administrators to draft plans to educate all Philadelphia students virtually at the start of the year. 

The Pittsburgh school board, meanwhile, announced this week that they may start the school year online, with hopes of transitioning to in-person instruction. 

That’s the same strategy the Allentown School District will follow, according to a reopening plan its board adopted Thursday night.

The string of announcements confirmed what education advocates have said since March, when Gov. Tom Wolf shuttered schools statewide: that districts serving the most vulnerable students are also the least able to muster the manpower and cash necessary to keep their communities safe from COVID-19.

But advocates also admit that limiting face-to-face instruction – at least to start the year – may be the safest decision for students, staff and their families as the virus continues to burn through parts of the United States.

“I sympathize with districts that have spent an extraordinary amount of time thinking about reopening, but I think the cards are pretty much on the table,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a Philadelphia-based non-profit. “People don’t feel comfortable sending kids to school.”

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Cooper said that a fast infusion of cash could help districts such as Philadelphia hire more staff and repair dilapidated facilities – two conditions that the teachers union say would make educators feel more comfortable returning to school. 

But if and until that day comes, “virtual [learning] may be the safest thing for everyone,” even if it comes with downsides.

Education researcher David Lapp said that the prospect of full-time remote learning “is not ideal by any means” for Pennsylvania’s largest and poorest school districts.

A growing body of research suggests that low-income students suffered the most when schools pivoted, virtually overnight, to remote instruction this spring. 

A study published by Research for Action, the Philadelphia-based consulting firm where Lapp serves as policy director, found that students in low-income districts in Allegheny County had access to less advanced technology and high-quality learning opportunities after Pennsylvania schools closed this March.

Those findings are consistent with a nationwide survey published this week by the American Institutes for Research, which suggests that high-poverty districts were less likely to monitor whether students completed their work, interacted with their teachers, and logged into their online schooling programs.

Cooper and Lapp agreed that poor students are going to be at a disadvantage this fall. But the school year could be salvageable, they say, if districts take quick, decisive action to offer the best online instruction possible.

That means that leaders need to commit as quickly as possible to one kind of learning plan, Lapp said.

Some Pennsylvania districts have rolled out ambitious, multi-pronged approaches to reopening, with hybrid models for in-person instruction and virtual academies for students that want to opt out of the classroom.

But Lapp said such plans are out of reach for many of Pennsylvania’s largest districts, where aging facilities, overburdened staff, and large populations of low-income students and English language learners create more complex logistical demands for administrators. 

“Many underfunded districts lack the resources and capacity to pull off any of these [reopening] approaches,” Lapp said. “It feels like the smartest thing is to do one thing as efficiently as possible.”

Cooper said that districts such as Philadelphia may be able to offer students in-person instruction at some point this year. But right now, with barely six weeks until school typically starts in Pennsylvania, they ought to focus all their energy on training teachers in the best practices for virtual instruction.

That’ll require a blitz of professional development for educators, as well as creative thinking to get students books, technology and school supplies that will make online classes more engaging.

“It is not too late to pivot to intensive training for teachers,” Cooper said. “Take the teachers who had the best experiences and help them mentor teachers who had a harder time. We really need to figure out how we’re going to do this.”