As thousands of students and teachers continue to stay home due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the superintendent for Philadelphia’s public schools put into focus the challenges of teaching during a pandemic.
Addressing a broad array of issues during a Thursday morning digital news conference, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite acknowledged difficulties like getting technology and reliable internet for students living in the poorest big city in America.
“I’m trying to think about children first and I’m trying to think about their well-being and making sure that they are cared for, they have their medications, they have meals, they have individuals who can address the trauma that they are experiencing,” Hite said. “Then, naturally, I worry about making sure that their learning doesn’t move backward.”
Below is a list of topics that Hite addressed Thursday, from technology, to meal distribution, to a change in grading standards.
The School District of Philadelphia has so far distributed around 75,000 Chromebooks to students and continues to distribute more, Hite said.
Those laptops are equipped with technology that allows schools to track when students have logged on, which is how they will take attendance. However, because the volunteers charged with tracking logins are the same people who have been busy distributing Chromebooks, the district does not yet have a read on attendance, Hite said, adding that they should have figures by the end of Friday.
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“This is all new to us. We are trying to do our best,” Hite said.
Currently, two locations have been set up as Chromebook distribution and repair sites: 440 N. Broad St. and 4101 Chalfont Drive. Parents are asked to show a form of ID upon arrival, while high school students can show their school-issued ID card.
To help students struggling with getting reliable internet, the school district is trying to make mobile hotspots available for six months to a year, Hite said.
Though the district doesn’t know how many hotspots it will be able to get, Hite said it would probably be no more than around 1,500, which he acknowledged would still not be enough to serve most students.
The neediest students, like those who are homeless, will be at the front of the line for hotspots, Hite said. After that will be students in schools where many families cannot get access to low-cost or free internet services.
Starting Thursday, the district will provide five breakfast and five lunch meals, as well as a half-gallon of milk, for each student. The meals will be packaged in a box. This coincides with a change in the meal distribution schedule, which is now moving to once a week, every Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon.
“This is a proactive measure we’re taking to further support the city’s shelter in place guidance and to minimize the social interactions and help flatten the curve,” Hite said.
The move will also allow each student to get 10 meals a day instead of the previous six.
Grading and instruction
Though he said the grading of assignments would begin May 4, Hite was somewhat unclear about what it would actually look like.
“These are the things that we’re still working out,” he said.
The goal, though, seems to be to give students credit for at least participating and completing schoolwork.
“The flip side of accountability is making sure that children aren’t penalized or punished for things that are completely out of their control,” like spotty internet, Hite said, adding that students would still be incentivized to do schoolwork because not doing so might put them at risk of not passing on to the next grade level or not graduating.
Hite said also that the district will have to spend time over the summer or at the beginning of next year "reassessing where children are" to make sure they have not fallen too far behind grade-level standards.
Meanwhile, the superintendent said learning packets will be available to download on the school district website, with new instruction materials added each week.
Hite also said teachers will be given leeway as to how they will structure their classes. However, they will be required to be available to teach, grade and give feedback – online or by phone – to students for at least 3 ½ hours a day. This will help ensure kids learn while allowing teachers to balance their personal demands, like taking care of their own children, Hite said.