Proposed consultant deal aims to help administrators confront COVID, racism

The Board of Education will consider plans to boost planning capacity and improve response to both pandemic concerns and systemic injustice.

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

Thursday will mark the partial return of in-person Board of Education meetings in Philadelphia, as administrators and board members meet in person for a semi-virtual session at District headquarters.

District officials say the public will not be permitted to attend the evening session in person, due to health guidelines limiting the size of public gatherings, and can instead watch live-streamed video, as in recent virtual meetings.

But board members and District officials will meet face to face for the first time since March, and officials hope the in-person session will pave the way for more inclusive meetings to come. Board spokesperson Janice Hatfield called the hybrid session “a test to understand the technological needs and challenges in conducting in-person board meetings.”

Hatfield said the session would be partially in-person so that board members can “stand in solidarity with our school communities, as they navigate the challenges of remote learning and the eventual and safe return to their classrooms.”

As at previous virtual sessions, committee members will read summaries of submitted public testimony into the record. Testimony will also be posted on the District website.

The meeting, scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m., will serve as a joint session for two board committees, Student Achievement & Support and Finance & Facilities. Each is intimately engaged with different aspects of the District’s reopening plans.

The board will hear the latest updates and public feedback on those plans and also consider a proposed three-part, $700,000 consulting contract meant to help the District improve its pandemic planning while better confronting issues of systemic racism.

Critics on social media have questioned the value of that contract, most of which is earmarked for training the District’s 700-person central office staff in various administrative skills, including “project management, supervisory skills … and MS Office/Google Suite.”

But $150,000 is for an antiracism component that aims to “build awareness, urgency, and capacity for antiracist leadership” within the District’s 110-member “Executive Team.”

“Haven’t we spent enough on Hite’s executive suite and team?” tweeted teacher K.R. Leubbert. “These consulting firms are running the biggest grift in the world.”

Lisa Haver of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) said her group would testify about the proposal and asked: “Is this essential at this time?”

And teacher Ismael Jimenez, a member of the Caucus of Working Educators, said it was improper for the District to pay consultants for antiracism work while also asking staff to contribute to such efforts for free.

“There are many organizations and … educators doing the work in the city for years who are now disrespectfully being asked to volunteer time,” Jimenez tweeted.

But District officials say the proposed deal with KJR Consulting of Massachusetts, specializing in organizational efficiency and customer service, would improve the District’s internal planning and “change management” capacity. The District’s lack of planning and project management capacity has been a known weakness since last year’s surprise wave of asbestos-related school shutdowns revealed that the District does what Board President Joyce Wilkerson called “an inadequate job managing complex projects.”

And although KJR has relatively little apparent experience in anti-racism work, it recently completed a series of workshops in Manchester, Connecticut. Participants in their “living room conversations” reported general satisfaction (“The differentiation between diversity, inclusion, & equity … was said in such a sensible, comprehensive manner,” reported one), but local critics remain unimpressed.

“I don’t know what a ‘living room conversation’ is, but I can guess and it isn’t the type of antiracist work that we need,” tweeted teacher Charlie McGeehan.

Meeting in a time of tumult

Philadelphia’s board meeting takes place as school districts and universities nationwide find themselves embroiled in controversy and confusion about reopening plans.

Infections have reportedly spread rapidly in some districts that have reopened, leading to sudden reversals and frustration. In one high-profile case, officials in Cherokee County, Georgia, sent 826 students and 42 teachers into quarantine due to possible exposure after just six days of classes. Other reports of waves of infection and changing plans can be found across the nation.

In Pennsylvania, where districts are still considering a range of hybrid and virtual strategies, new guidance from Gov. Wolf spells out detailed metrics to guide reopening decisions. Although the state won’t enforce any restrictions, it recommends that only counties with low transmission rates – 5% or less – return to full in-person instruction.

Most of Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and eight neighboring counties, is classified as “moderate,” with infection rates between 5% and 10%. The Wolf administration guidelines recommend hybrid or fully-remote learning for such counties.

But with final decisions still falling to local school boards, reopening proposals continue to trigger controversy statewide. In Lower Merion, among the state’s most prosperous districts, teachers are pushing back against a plan that would bring them back to classrooms even as students remain at home. Over 2,500 have signed a petition calling for virtual instruction; their concerns include health and safety but also the same child-care issues that now bedevil all working families.

“I want to be able to [teach] from home so I can take care of my own kids because I don’t really have easy choices for child care that are within our means,” teacher Andrea Malkin told ABC6 News.

The head of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), Dr. Mark DiRocco, told CBS21 in Harrisburg that the Wolf administration’s latest “dashboard” will be “very helpful to our school leaders,” but comes with only weeks to go and may be of limited use to those districts where “a lot of decisions have already been made.”

DiRocco cited “a lot of unanswered questions out there” about what he called “operational level questions,” including details of social distancing and recommended mask use. “The clock is running out on this,” DiRocco said. “If we’d gotten it earlier, it would have been more helpful.”

In Philadelphia, principals say that getting answers to those operational questions is paramount. Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA), the principals’ union, said that she won’t be testifying Thursday, but expects her members to have plenty to say at the board’s Aug. 20 action meeting about “the lack of details around school opening.”

Principal Alonzo Fulton of Harrington Elementary said that even after last week’s multi-day “leadership seminar” for principals, numerous nuts-and-bolts questions remain unaddressed. “So many holes, so many questions,” said Fulton.

Among principals’ concerns: They don’t yet know whether they can require virtual students to show their faces on-screen – key to ensuring that students are actually attending, they say. Other issues concern the details of social distancing, the logistics of laptop and classwork distribution, the quality of online assessments (“If a student is at home and is getting help from a parent, what does that do for the accuracy of the data?” asked Fulton.), and the details of teachers’ workdays.

Fulton said that the last question is of particular importance because teachers’ availability is guided by the District’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and he can’t give final instructions to his staff until he knows what that deal allows.

“The teachers’ workday is still unclear,” said Fulton. “I don’t want to be in a position where I’m engaging the PFT in battles.”

PASA’s DiRocco said those sorts of operational questions pose a major challenge to administrators. Policies that seem simple get complicated fast in practice; guidelines for mask use, for example, can depend on the distance between desks.

“If you can’t have kids six feet apart, and you only have five feet, do you still have to wear the mask all day? That’s an operational question,” said DiRocco.

Concerns rising in the region and nation

Reopening is just the beginning, DiRocco said. Handling outbreaks and possible infections once classes are in session will require a lot of detailed decision-making, DiRocco said, and right now, districts have little to guide them.

And with cold-and-flu season coming this winter, “we’re going to have a lot of suspected cases,” DiRocco said. Faced with the option of quarantining classrooms, groups of students, or even entire buildings, district leaders statewide need more clarity about what they “can” or “should” do vs. what they “must” do, said DiRocco.

“What is the format and protocol for quarantining?” DiRocco asked. “We don’t have that criteria.”

Elsewhere in the region, similar concerns abound, and districts’ plans are changing rapidly. In New Jersey, for example, where new data continues to show significant transmission risks for young people and their families, state officials have abandoned a plan to require in-person instruction. On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that local school boards may opt for fully virtual instruction, while the New Jersey Education Association continues to push for a fully virtual start statewide. Reopening “cannot be left in the hands of nearly 600 individual school districts,” the union said.

A similar conflict is breaking out in New York City, where city officials are hoping for a partial re-opening, citing broad demand for in-person learning from community members, while teachers’ unions worried about safety argue for a fully virtual fall.

Meanwhile, a growing number of major universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, have cancelled fall programming and committed to all-virtual learning. Among the apparent casualties: college sports, including much of the multibillion-dollar college football industry.

But some K-12 systems and universities still plan to reopen in the fall, at least partially. One such university is Pennsylvania State University, which won’t have football but plans to offer in-person classes for students who sign COVID liability waivers. A leader of one faculty group called that “unacceptable,” but university administrators say it is “important that students and families understand there is COVID-19 risk everywhere.”