Diversity & Inclusion
Digital access / Education

Philly schools’ new plan: The year will begin totally virtually, superintendent says

The virtual instruction will continue until at least Nov. 17 — the end of the first quarter — when officials will reevaluate circumstances, but some questions about digital access remain.

The headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia. (Photo by Dan Marcel)

On Tuesday, Philly Superintendent Dr. William Hite announced that there was a new plan in play for the 2020-21 school year, as the Philadelphia region continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of a “hybrid” model that was introduced earlier this month and would involve a mix of in-person and virtual instruction, all students K-12 will begin the year with virtual instruction, the School District of Philadelphia announced.

They will be doing so through at least Nov. 17, which marks the end of the first quarter of the school year. The change comes after hearing more community feedback, Hite told reporters Wednesday. Concerns of safety for students, staff and their families was expressed over the weekend during a protest by educators outside of the School District headquarters, for instance.

“There wasn’t a community level of comfort I felt was needed to get people back into a routine,” he said.

This new plan still must go in front of the Board of Education for a vote, Hite said, as well as the decision to start the school year on the originally intended day of Aug. 31, or to wait until Sept. 2. Those additional few days would likely go toward more professional development for school staff on virtual instruction.

The date of Nov. 17 isn’t special in any way, Hite said, other than offering a time to reevaluate the conditions of the school community and where the region stands with the virus. If improvements have been made with fewer cases and more readily available safety measures, as well as an OK from the health commissioner, the district could consider a hybrid model at that time.

There’s still an issue of access that the district is keeping its eye on, Hite said. In the spring, it became clear that some students didn’t have access to the technology or internet required to pull off digital learning. Earlier this month, the City of Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Office established a policy initiative called the Digital Equity Coordinating Committee to connect community stakeholders with an aim to ensure Philadelphians who need access to internet and technology will be able to get it.

Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney emphasized the scale of work ahead that’s needed to get one-to-one devices to students: “That’s going to take some time and a lot of data sharing,” he told Technical.ly in mid-July.

The companies that provide data and internet services are the ones that have information about households without internet, Hite said. The school district is currently holding weekly meetings with stakeholders like the Department of Commerce and internet providers about the status of access for all school families.

The district will continue to distribute Chromebook computers to students without access to a device, and while he doesn’t know exactly how it’s getting done, Hite said there have been more stakeholders step up this time around to get more widespread internet access across the city by the start of school.

“All children who need internet will have it,” he said.

He added that there’s an opportunity for schools to become internet access zones for families who are seeking an internet connection. There’s also discussion about schools being a place for potential childcare, he said.

The biggest difference between digital instruction in the spring when the pandemic first hit and the upcoming school year is time, Hite said. The summer — and the lift of the stay-at-home-order — has allowed for more instruction, planning and training for teachers, and more time for the district to accumulate and distribute devices.

“There are lots more people trying to engage in this effort,” he said.

Mayor Jim Kenney told Technical.ly through a spokesperson that he supported the superintendent’s plan, saying it offers families and school more time to prepare for in-person learning. He also stated the importance of stakeholder collaboration in forming a plan for increased digital access.

“While District schools are operating virtually, we must all work together to give children the educational and enrichment opportunities that they deserve,” Kenney said. “The City, District, charter schools, and other partners are working together on a digital access plan to support families with virtual learning. In addition, we are developing a plan to provide supervised, connected spaces for those students who can’t safely stay at home during the school day. To be clear, the City cannot replicate a school environment or provide childcare for all School District students, therefore the vast majority of students will be learning at home. But we will prioritize supporting children and families with the greatest needs.”

Companies: School District of Philadelphia

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