This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
UPDATED 2:15 p.m.
A detailed memo from the Philadelphia School District that lays out plans for completion of the school year online tells teachers to keep in daily touch with students for both academic and emotional needs, but specifies that all instruction will consist of “review and enrichment” until May 4, when new content may be introduced.
The nine-page document says that, as of now, all teachers and school counselors should be holding “office hours” for an hour-and-a-half each day “for student questions about enrichment activities and to check-in with their students.” In addition, principals should assign each adult in the school an advisory-like group of students to contact regularly, at least once or twice a week.
Office hours should include “a variety of activities,” including help with skills and problem-solving “aligned to lessons,” feedback to students’ work, additional support for students with special needs and English learners, and general family contact of students who have not been engaging via Google Classroom, which is the District’s means for conducting the online teaching.
The plan for instruction calls for teachers to follow the learning guides that are available online and also were distributed in packets to families. So far, two sets have been distributed, each covering two weeks. Beginning on April 15, the document says, teachers will have access to the next set of “review and enrichment” learning guides that they can upload to Google Classroom so they can begin online instruction on April 20.
“Specifically, for now, the District will be focused on review and enrichment activities,” the memo says. “During academic review and enrichment time, new content should not be taught. Review and enrichment activities should be related to content from before March 1st.”
The one exception to this is project-based learning, which can continue “without grading.”
If the closure extends into May, the document says, “we will then engage in a hybrid model of enrichment/review and planned instruction (new learning for students, graded assignments, etc.) beginning the week of May 4th. This infusion of planned instruction is to provide students with opportunities to obtain necessary skills and content for end-of-year requirements as well as to address the unique needs of specific populations of students (e.g. credit recovery for seniors). Prior to implementing any planned instruction, specific guidance will be shared with teachers, principals, assistant superintendents, and families for whom this is relevant.”
The memo gives teachers flexibility in organizing their time while emphasizing the expectation that “our teachers and other school-based staff [will] be participating in work activities and available during their traditional schedule.”
It offers an example: “For instance, one teacher might want to hold office hours for students from 9-10:30 am Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and from 12-1:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Another might want to have them from 8:30-10 am every day. The important point is that, whatever the schedule, that families know and understand when and how they can interact with the teacher through office hours.”
This week, teachers and other school personnel are being offered virtual training, while “additional professional development and review of materials will also be provided by principals.”
Counselors are being asked to prioritize 8th, 11th, and 12th graders and to review and update the Individualized Education Programs (IEP) of special education students, among other tasks. There is also a list of potential activities for other instructional staff, such as school-based teacher leaders, to analyze data, answer student questions, and develop “culture-building” activities for teachers and other staff.
But for all its detail, the document leaves many issues up in the air, including whether the school year will be extended to the end of June to make up for lost time, how third-quarter grades will be determined, what will happen with fourth-quarter grades, how seniors will meet all their graduation requirements, and whether there will be regularly scheduled online classes that students will be expected to attend.
“We know that this effort, which is the central focus and purpose of our work as a District, will look different from our traditional work but must continue in service and support of our students and our mission to serve the children of this city,” the document says, adding: “As the situation is not static, we also know that some of this guidance will change over time.”
The issue of whether the District can offer mandatory instruction and grade work if all students do not have access to the online learning tools has been a concern since the school shutdown started. Longstanding state and federal rules have required that any district offering “continuity of education” provide students with disabilities and English learners all the services to which they are entitled. Saying they could not do so, some districts said they would provide no instruction. Philadelphia initially took that stance, but then quickly shifted its approach as this unprecedented situation continued to unfold.
Those state and federal regulations have since been modified, with the state setting the standard that districts make a “good faith effort” within their means. The Philadelphia Board of Education decided to spend $11 million to buy laptops and distribute them to all students who didn’t have them.
But there is still concern and uncertainty over universal access, with many educators and advocates saying that the crisis has only exacerbated educational inequity in the state and the nation. The schedule that the District laid out assumes that by April 20, all students will have the Chromebooks that the District is now distributing, as well as access to the internet, which is not now available to all families.
UPDATE While the major internet service providers are all offering various discount and low-cost plans to existing and potential customers with limited means, there is as yet no details on a coordinated effort to make sure all students have access to online learning. “We are working thru these issues with the School District, the first step was the distribution of the Chromebooks,” City Managing Director Brian Abernathy said Tuesday.
Through April 30, Comcast is offering two months free to new customers “with limited means” through its low-cost Internet Essentials program; Verizon also said it will offer low-cost plans and waive some charges and fees. Comcast and AT&T say they will make their WiFi hotspots open to everyone, not just their own subscribers. More details are available here, including where to find the hotspots.
The School District also issued a statement saying it is “working with the City of Philadelphia and Comcast to help as many Philadelphia families as possible have free or low-cost access to the internet, saying that its intention is to provide a comprehensive list of low-cost Internet options or details on accessing free WiFi mobile hotspots to ensure that our students can use the Chromebooks we’re providing.”
The Notebook will continue to follow the plans for online learning as the District updates its guidance.