In just one day since the enrollment period began, some 2,000 School District of Philadelphia students have already opted for fully digital instruction in the fall, district officials said.
Students and parents who opt into the “Digital Academy” are committing to at least the first two quarters of exclusively digital learning, which run from September of this year to January of next year, SDP Chief of Academic Support Malika Savoy-Brooks said Thursday.
The enrollment period for the Digital Academy began Wednesday and runs through Aug. 4. Savoy-Brooks said the district expects about 20% of students to choose this option as concerns linger over the COVID-19 pandemic, something which worries Superintendent William Hite.
“For our most vulnerable children and our most vulnerable families, I’m very concerned about individuals falling further behind,” said Hite, who has made no secret about the learning gap that happens when students, especially younger children or those with special education needs, cannot have regular face-to-face interactions with their teachers.
Come the start of the fall semester in September, the school district will be assessing students in the digital academy and those who choose hybrid instruction to determine how much they’ve fallen behind, Savoy-Brooks said.
Hite and other city officials, including Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, have left open the possibility that the district may be forced to revert to fully digital learning for all students if health conditions worsen.
"This is our plan as of now," Hite said. "Due to the nature of this pandemic, conditions will continue to evolve in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas, which means that we must also be ready to evolve, and we will evolve as we receive guidance from the city, the state and federal health authorities."
In the meantime, students in the Digital Academy will have a lot of the same offerings as their peers doing hybrid learning, with some exceptions.
Those in the Digital Academy will still be able to take electives and advanced placement courses, as well as avail themselves to tele-services for things like special education support or counseling services, Savoy-Brooks said. They’ll also be able to participate digitally in extracurricular activities and school-sponsored programs.
However, they won’t be able to take career in technical education courses because “the purpose of the CTE … is to learn skills and have opportunities to apply that learning, and that is not possible in the digital setting,” Savoy Brooks said. International baccalaureate and JROTC courses will also not be offered.
Before the school year even starts, the district is undertaking a process of deep-cleaning the inside of all schools and buildings.
“They are pulling out items from rooms, doing a deep cleaning of those rooms. That is all rooms and buildings – hallways, bathrooms .. offices – to get them ready for the return of our staff and students,” SDP Interim Chief of Facilities Management and Capital Projects Alicia Prince said.
Custodial staff are also undergoing training on how to properly disinfect high-touch areas, which will need to be cleaned at least every four hours once school starts, she said. Custodians are also learning how to use electrostatic backpack sprayers, which they will use to spray disinfectant in all buildings each night before teachers and students come back in the next day.
In addition, maintenance teams are inspecting HVAC units to ensure that air in buildings flows at 15 cubic feet per minute, up from the previous 8 cubic feet per minute, Prince said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adequate ventilation to help curb the spread of the virus. In addition to changes to HVAC standards, the district is adding portable fans to classrooms, requiring that doors be open and making window repairs to ensure they can open too, Prince said.
She added that all buildings will receive a final walk-through for cleanliness from a third-party inspector before teachers and students are allowed back in.
The district’s board of education on Thursday night will review and vote on the health and safety plan, a crucial step before in-person classes are allowed to start.