What will school look like in September?

Superintendent William Hite said he expected unions to be involved in working out when it is safe to reopen schools and under what conditions. He also talked about grading.

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

When and if school buildings open in the fall, what will education look like?

Will students go to schools on alternate days? Will schools need to buy plastic shields for desks? Will buses do double or triple shifts so they can carry fewer students? Will there be staggered schedules?

Will schools need to install more hand-washing stations? Will teachers and students have to wear masks? Who will pay for all this?

What about recess? Lunch? Sports?

Will it be safe?

Superintendent William Hite said Thursday that he has a group from the District working with the city, health, and transportation officials in an effort to figure out answers to questions like these.

The working groups “are looking at all the contingencies,” he said during a conference call with reporters.

Hite said that few things are certain now, except that he has pretty much written off any chance that there will be face-to-face summer school.

“Virtual is more of the likely option, given where we are,” he said. But something will be necessary for “vulnerable” populations, including those with special needs and high school seniors who need more credits to graduate.

Come fall, he surmised, high school students might have more flexibility than younger ones.

“The technology gives us some ability to think differently where children need to be every single day at a given time now that they all have access to information and content,” he said. “It’s a little different for elementary students. Their families have to go to work, so we’re working through all of those considerations as we think what those plans will look like.”

At the Board of Education meeting Thursday night, a few board members expressed concern that the District should not move forward with planned classroom modernizations this summer due to the uncertainty about funding as well as uncertainty over whether students will actually be in classrooms.

“Who knows what school configuration will look like when all this is settled?” asked one board member.

Hite said that there were also concerns about the health of staff members who might be particularly vulnerable to the worst effects of the coronavirus.

“We have to think through how to work with those individuals and how those with technology can remain available for student instruction” without direct contact, he said.

The District’s unions are or will be part of the working groups trying to figure all this out, Hite said.

The two major national teachers’ unions have made public statements this week that they would vigorously protest reopening schools without all the proper health measures in place, including the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that the federal government must make sure funds are available for equipment and necessary health measures and that employees need to feel free to speak up about their concerns.

If schools are reopened without proper safety measures, “you scream bloody murder,” Weingarten said, according to POLITICO. “And you do everything you can to … use your public megaphones.”

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers – which is now negotiating a new contract with the District – is part of the AFT. Its current contract expires at the end of August.

The president of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen García, said teachers could strike if they felt schools were being opened prematurely or without the proper health measures in place, POLITICO reported.

During Thursday’s media phone call, Hite also spoke to another issue that remains the subject of some confusion for teachers – grading between now and the end of the year.

Teachers will begin introducing new material and grading work on Monday, after weeks of offering students materials for “review and enrichment.” Hite has decided that these grades will fill out the third marking period instead of beginning a new one, and he has reiterated that the District is “still figuring out” how exactly the grading will work – whether the grades will be based on participation or on the quality and content of the work.

Hite says he wants the grades to “do no harm” because of the unprecedented nature of this situation. He doesn’t want students to be penalized for circumstances beyond their control, such as lack of internet access or the need to take care of younger siblings. On the other hand, some students need to make up credits or finish work in order to graduate.

And there is always the tricky question of motivation – will students who are satisfied with the grades they have now be able to avoid participation without concern?

Hite said that the “whole point is not to be punitive with grades.” He noted that some districts have gone to pass/fail, as have some local charter schools. Some schools, he said, are simply ending the year now. The goal of instruction now until the end of the year on June 12 is to “prevent regression” and make sure students are prepared to move on to the next grade.

All of this, he said, “is hard to figure out. … We’re doing the best we can not to be overly punitive for things that could be completely outside a student’s control.

“For students on the fence, in danger of failing, or in danger of not being promoted, I do expect them to make up assignments and do the work. But those grades should simply be for participating. I don’t want to harp on traditional grading in a nontraditional pandemic.”