Meet Philadelphia’s bureau chief: What we’re watching as students learn remotely

Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s bureau chief Johann Calhoun.

Since March, students in Philadelphia have been inundated with insurmountable obstacles, thanks to a pandemic that has altered the face of their classrooms. Safely reopening schools and connecting with students about the unrest happening around the killings of Black Americans, have become two of the biggest challenges for students and educators here. 

Coming on board as Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s bureau chief, I see my top priority as reporting on a strained educational landscape for 200,000 students in district and charter schools, most of whom live near or below the poverty line.

One could say I have a multicultural background. I’m a native of Houston, Texas, and grew up in a predominantly white, Jewish neighborhood where I attended bar mitzvahs and quinceañeras. I was born, baptized, and raised in an A.M.E. church in the city’s Third Ward. I also attended Catholic school to later graduate from a public high school (one of the biggest in Texas) before attending an HBCU in Louisiana, where I switched majors from accounting to journalism.
I come from a family of educators. My late mother was a high school biology teacher with the Houston Independent School District. Mom loved her students and expressed sadness at times not seeing them grow into their full potential. My deceased maternal grandmother was a teacher and later a counselor at the Mississippi School for the Blind. Her husband, my late grandfather, was one of the first Black principals in Jackson, Miss. — this during an era when it was almost a death sentence for Black people to exhibit advanced academic skills in the South.
My upbringing and passion for community storytelling are reasons why I’m dedicated to education journalism. 
As a resident of West Philadelphia for 21 years, I’ve witnessed firsthand how the classroom climate for our students has evolved dramatically. I’ve also worked in Bucks County and South Jersey and am well aware of the stark differences in the region’s academic offerings. Government funding of local education, school choice, teachers’ salaries, campus safety, disciplinary tactics, and immigration policies are also major topics of concern.

I recall a moment as city editor at The Philadelphia Tribune when I was confronted by former School Superintendent Paul Vallas, who was irate over the paper’s front page coverage of students not having enough textbooks. Vallas thought the reporting was personal. I assured him it was not and that our primary duty was addressing the many concerns of students and their parents – not him. 
My commitment to the community will remain steadfast at Chalkbeat. Our coverage will be focused journalism driven to make an impact for our students.  As you may know, The Notebook, which heavily covered equity in public education in Philly, is partnering with Chalkbeat. I’m still good friends with its former editor and publisher Paul Socolar and some former staffers and will continue its legacy of thorough reporting on education here.
For now, let’s take a look at what the Chalkbeat Philly bureau is watching as our schools operate remotely during this pandemic.

The students

During a time when social injustice has become a major point of concern, the emotional support of in-person learning will be missed by a student body that is largely Black and Latino. For many of our kids, the loss of guidance and hugs from teachers will have a significant effect on their learning growth. 

The teachers

Aside from the students, those struggling the most with remote learning are Philly teachers. The stress of students not registered for class and skepticism of the district’s reopening plan top their concerns.

The superintendent

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, like other school chiefs across the country, didn’t ask for this crisis. His move to create an equity coalition and task force has been widely applauded. We will continue to watch the developments of his reopening plan.

Learning retention

A major worry for teachers and parents is learning loss. The hurdle here is to make sure students stay on track academically as they learn in an untraditional classroom setting that may not work for every student.

Student poverty

Philly has the unfortunate distinction of being “America’s poorest big city.” For some students, food and housing insecurity are a part of life.

Police distrust

Students like all of us are confronted by images of unarmed men and women beaten and killed by police. The district has already been criticized for not having adequate mental health counselors on site. But what about services at home as students continue to see these killings over the Internet?

Students will see a change to discipline in schools when they return to in-person classes. Hite made the choice to put school police under a forward-thinking police reformer who has led a move away from arresting students and working toward mentoring and providing social services. The school police are now called “safety officers.”

Safety of educators

The primary concern for principals and district officials is the rush for them to return to campus without a concrete plan in place that ensures their safety is paramount. Questions loom on the level of cleaning and maintenance of campuses already plagued by the district’s ongoing asbestos crisis.

Limited learning spaces

Free library branches have reopened since closing in March and have served as central locations for student access centers. These centers provide a space for students who can’t safely stay at home during days of digital school learning. There have been complaints of branch spaces being overcrowded at times with limited resources. 

Broken technology

Equity and access are issues here. District officials announced they will loan Chromebooks to every student who needs them “to ensure all students have access to digital learning opportunities while schools remain closed.” But repair locations for these devices may be too far for parents, and hours of operation may not be compatible with work schedules of caregivers.

Mass transit worries

SEPTA will at times cut back on bus, train, and trolley services as it moves to accommodate a smaller number of commuters amid the pandemic. Affected routes along the Market-Frankford Line and the Broad Street line will indefinitely affect students’ ability to travel around town.

Though SEPTA says its services are clean, riders still say they don’t feel safe and more could be done to enforce riders to wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines. 

These points should not be viewed as an attack on district leaders, rather a way of helping us at the Chalkbeat Philly bureau gauge the progress of remote learning for students as they prepare to return for in-person classes. The next few months will be critical for district officials, teachers and students.
If you have concerns regarding the remote learning environment for the city’s students, and they are not listed here, please don’t hesitate to contact me at

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Este estudiante universitario no pensó que cursar estudios avanzados era para él. Cuando decidió ir, terminó trabajando en proyectos para ayudar a otros estudiantes como él.