A morning at Comegys: Food, homework, and a cloud of uncertainty

Parents say they’re ready for more change but want clear and consistent communication.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For 4th grader Shanice Williams, the coronavirus shutdown hasn’t been too stressful so far.

“I’m worried, but not too worried,” said Shanice as she stood in the chilly sunshine outside Comegys Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia. “I’m just going to stay in my house all day, so I’ve got nothing to worry about.”

But when Shanice looks more than a few weeks down the road, she starts to wonder and worry.

“I feel like they’re going to put us back a grade,” she said. “If I go to school in the summertime, I’m going to be mad. It’s going to be hot, too hot in the classrooms.”

Shanice and her mother, Tish, came to Comegys to pick up her latest academic packets. They were among about 20 people who stopped by the school over the course of an hour on Thursday morning to collect homework packets and boxes of food. Parents and grandparents, some with children in tow, stood in a short line outside the school cafeteria, as District workers helped them keep a healthy distance from each other.

With the coronavirus shutdown soon to enter its fourth week, the Williamses and other families at Comegys say that they’re managing reasonably well, but that a cloud of uncertainty hangs over everything. Students could very well be finished with traditional schooling for the year, they say. What that means for them and their households is unclear.

“I don’t think they’re going back,” said Tamika Smith, a parent of two charter school students. “No one knows what’s going on.”

For students, these families say, the shutdown’s signature feature so far has been boredom. For parents, the challenge is planning. With the future of both school and work equally cloudy, no one can tell families exactly what to expect and when. Parents are wondering how long they’ll have their children at home. Students are wondering whether they’ll get enough instruction to pass on to the next grade.

The families at Comegys say they’re hoping for the best, but starting to plan for a spring without school.

Tish Williams said that Shanice is diligently working on her homework packets – she’s on her fourth set of them already. She will “hopefully” get a laptop from the District soon, but exactly when, Williams doesn’t yet know.

Likewise, she doesn’t know whether Shanice will be home for another month, or two, or until September.

“They’re uncertain, just like everybody else,” Williams said. “They’re not sure. First it was April, then it sounded like May, now it sounds like they may bring their school year to an end.”

She doesn’t expect the District to have every answer now, but Williams said she does expect officials to do better at keeping her and other families abreast of the rapid changes.

“They need to communicate better with people, period. It hasn’t been good in a long time, even before all this,” she said. “They need to have a better plan … to let people know what’s what.”

Hungry for clear communication

Other families at Comegys made the same point: They’re prepared for uncertainty, but they want clear and consistent communication.

Nadirah Shaqar has a granddaughter at Comegys and a daughter in the 9th grade at Parkway West High School. Having everyone cooped up at home hasn’t been easy, but the family is doing its best, Shaqar said.

“We try to keep them occupied, play games,” she said. “The kids are bored, but there’s nothing we can do about it, but follow the guidelines.”

Her granddaughter, a kindergartner, has handled the transition relatively smoothly. But her daughter, the high school freshman, is already worried about the shutdown’s impact on her high school career.

“Now she’s like, will she have to repeat the same grade over next year? Which is not good,” said Shaqar. “A lot of students are going to be frustrated.”

Shaqar sees an unpleasant choice looming for students: either they’ll be forced to repeat a year or they’ll be promoted without being ready. Her daughter is getting academic packets from Parkway West, but how useful and effective they are remains to be seen, she said.

“The packets that they’re given, when I gave it to my daughter, she’s like, ‘We didn’t even get to this part yet!’” Shaqar said.

Superintendent William Hite said on a Facebook Live post on Wednesday that the transition to online learning will begin the week of April 20, but Shaqar knows little about how rigorous or effective that will be. Without a solid daily structure for learning, Shaqar said, students like her daughter run the risk of falling off track.

“It’s kind of horrible for them,” she said. “If they’re not in school learning every day, or they don’t give them something to do every day to keep them on a curriculum, how can they pass them to another grade?”

Sheila Holman, grandmother of two Comegys students, said she’s trying to stay on top of their schoolwork. She makes sure they complete their academic packets and supplements it when she can with online programs like ABC Mouse. The boys – 2nd and 3rd graders – don’t have laptops, but she has a computer that’s old but functional. So the family cobbles together what it can to keep the boys engaged when they’re not doing “flips and jumping jacks” in the house, she said.

“Whatever works,” said Holman. “They have to be educated, regardless of what virus comes in or out. They have be educated. That’s the main thing.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood is getting that education right now, she said. Students have to depend on their parents and grandparents, not all of whom are able to provide the same level of support.

Likewise, students need more depth to their education than the packets can provide, Holman said: “What about gym? What about science?” And she worries that the work students do now won’t end up on their formal transcripts.

Hite also said Wednesday that the District has shifted the year from four marking periods to three, leaving the unfinished third marking period open until the end of the school year. He added that officials will share more details about grades later this month.

Holman said that if children work hard and make progress, they should be rewarded for it.

“Whatever way you look at it, they still got to be credited,” she said. “I don’t care how they do it, you’ve got to be credited.”

Families in charter schools are facing uncertainty, too. Tamika Smith’s two children are in Inquiry Charter School, which she said has been riding the same wave of confusion as everyone else.

“When the District said they would be closed, [Inquiry] said they’d be open still. But then it changed … first it was one week. Then it was another week,” said Smith. “Now, I don’t even know. It changes every single day. You call and sometimes they don’t even answer the phone!”

Smith doesn’t hold it against Inquiry; the coronavirus took everyone by surprise, she said. “It’s a good school, but I don’t think they were prepared for it,” said Smith.

But the charter isn’t providing much in the way of online instruction, she said, so she’s supplementing with the District’s offerings. “I use those packets – and I’m really grateful for them,” she said.

Without them, her children would be even more restless than they already are, she said. “The video games are good, because that’s all they do all day, but after a while they get bored of that,” said Smith. “It’s ironic – when they’re in school, they want to be outside, but now that they’re home, they want to be in school.”

Chromebooks seem promising

The promise of District-provided laptops gives these families some optimism.

“I know they’re talking about the Chromebooks and stuff, and I’m waiting for when they start passing them out so they can do a little bit more,” said Holman.

“I hope that when these Chromebooks come out, that they get [students] back on track,” said Shaqar.

But the families at Comegys were not clear on how the laptops will be distributed or what kind of academic programs or family support would come with them.

“I don’t know about the homework, how they’re going to install it,” said Shaqar. The District needs to offer “some parent guidance, so they can follow the curriculum.”

For now, the parents who visited Comegys say they’re ready to stay flexible. They say they want to do the right thing, maintain social distancing and keep their families safe. They’ll lean on family and friends for help with academics and child care, and hope for the best at work.

Smith has been laid off from her job at a restaurant; Williams has lost her work in a beauty salon. Both said they can file for unemployment or public assistance, but neither relishes that prospect.

“It’s still not the same as getting up and going to work every day,” said Williams.

As for 4th grader Shanice, she said that studying at home isn’t all bad. There are fewer distractions from other kids, and help from her mother is only a holler away.

“It’s not hard – it’s helping me,” said Williams.

But she’ll be glad to get back to a normal education.

“I miss my teachers. I miss my friends,” she said. “Yesterday my friend texted me, and I was like, ‘I wish I could come over.’ But I’m not trying to get out of the house.”