Marking one year COVID anniversary, Hite talks Philadelphia reopening, stimulus, new school year in Chalkbeat interview

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite considers his ninth year leading the school district to be the most challenging of his more than 30 years in education. This time last March he was forced to shut schools for almost 120,000 district students due to COVID-19.

In one year Hite has juggled fallout from district teachers over building ventilation concerns, assisted the mayor in getting teachers and school workers vaccinated and attempted to reopen schools safely for the district’s youngest learners.

After multiple attempts at reopening, some students returned to a learning environment last Monday quite different than the one they left last year. The students now wear face masks and sit in classrooms with plexiglass shields attached to their desks. 

“This year has been difficult. It’s been difficult for everybody,” Hite said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “We’re navigating something we haven’t been through before. And then you layer on top of that the social unrest, and the injustices, the inequities. However, it was nice to see children back in schools. That part to me is more inspiring than not, simply because it took so many individuals to pull that off.”

The biggest sign of relief for the district has to be the $1.3 billion it’s getting from the American Rescue Act, which was signed by President Biden last week. School officials said they are awaiting “final language” and possible restrictions before confirming what the money will be used for. The funds are available through September 2023, though federal guidance for the previous two stimulus packages allowed districts an extra year to allocate the funds, according to the bill.

Right now Hite is focused on getting as many early learners back to some sort of in-person learning this school year as possible, recruiting up to 900 teachers for the coming school year, and returning all students to a full-time in-person environment in the fall. 

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

> What has this year been like for you, this unprecedented time, under all this pressure? People screaming at you?

Remember when we had to close schools, everybody was screaming? So the screaming becomes part of the work. I’m proud of our teachers who’ve been doing tremendous work in a difficult set of circumstances, and our administrators and school staff, and families and most importantly, the children who remain resilient and persistent, even through all these things. As educators, you want children to be in schools. 

Everyone was frustrated we couldn’t get children into school sooner. So it’s been difficult in that regard. Hopefully, we’re going to learn a lot from this process. And hopefully, we’ll come back out on the other side with things that are different based on what we’ve learned. And things that are improved based on what we’ve had to navigate over the past 12 months.

>Do you know how many teachers and school staff have been vaccinated or started the vaccination process?

We know half the educators from the school district have been vaccinated or received the first shot, about 12,000 people.  

>Can you clarify what the district will be doing to extend the school year? 

One, we have to do an extended school year by law for children with complex special needs. But when I said we were extending the school year, I was talking mainly about 10th through 12th graders who are either in danger of not receiving the credit for their current grade or not graduating. And those young people will have opportunities to go to a fifth marking period, which would be held during the summer. Then there are academic enrichment skills for everyone else. So we will have summer programming that will be for recapturing some of the interrupted learning. We have summer programming for enrichment opportunities that will be open to everybody.

>Is there a timetable yet for bringing back students other than pre-K to grade two in this school year?

Before the end of the school year, I don’t think I can be more precise than that. We’re trying to make announcements every week about the next groups of children that we want to bring in. So I’ve always talked about [children with] complex needs. We’re talking about the higher grades in elementary school, and hopefully, even into middle and high school, but I can’t give a timeframe on that.

>Some of the charter schools including those run by Mastery have an accelerated timetable for bringing kids back. Have you been looking at that? We have heard through the social media grapevine that one of the Mastery schools had to temporarily shut down. Have there been cases in any of the district schools that have reopened?

We haven’t had to close any schools for cases yet. We’ve had some cases in schools, mostly among staff members, not teachers, other staff members. We predicted that there will be cases, every school district that has opened around the country has had cases. It’s what you do when you have cases and the protocols to follow. We’re following those protocols. I have spoken with my colleagues at Mastery. I’m glad they’re able to get children into more routine naturally. We want to do the same thing as quickly as possible. I just don’t have a timetable for this.

(Since this interview on Monday a district building, Mayfair Elementary School, announced Wednesday it was closing due to COVID-19 cases.)

>What do you think the fall is going to look like? What is your goal? 

The goal is to get all children into a full in-person environment. That’s the goal. Well, I hope that’s what it will look like. Yeah. So that’s the goal. We want to continue to work to make sure we’re providing the academic/enrichment supports, the social and emotional support for children, and ensuring that they are done in facilities that are not in disrepair. So that’s the goal. And then we will have to base that on the recommendation from health providers, CDC and others.

>What can you tell us about the 19 schools that aren’t opening on the schedule you set with the union?

They just haven’t been cleared yet. So we’re still working through a process with the PFT to get those schools clear. And we’ll continue to do that work. They haven’t been cleared as of this morning [Monday] and so we are focusing on the 133 we can open.

>Provide insight on standardized testing?

It has to be done in person. The Pennsylvania Department of Education has given guidance that the state testing cannot be given to children who are virtual. And we will look at however many children we can get in the spring, and we’ll try to administer the state assessments to those young people who are present. And I think you’ve heard that the testing this year is not designed to be punitive or high stakes. It’s designed to provide us with what these assessments were designed to do, and that’s to give us information about the children. It allows you to see how your children are doing versus all the children. And I think when you remove high stakes, it’s even more informative in terms of how children are doing.

>What does it mean to have this money from the American Rescue Act?

It’s significant for us. I mean, it’s very important. Even after the CARES Act, we were facing a $70 million revenue shortfall in the current year and a $400 million shortfall over the next several years. And so this helps buy time for us to determine in our five-year plan what we will do long term to ensure that we have recurring funds. By the same token, it helps us address some of the facilities issues, facility repairs, it assures we can put all the COVID mitigation structures in place. And most importantly, it will allow us to really focus on interrupted and lost learning from young people. And that’s why we’re talking about such a significant summer school program. And we want to make sure that’s over a period of time because we know we’re not just going to solve the interrupted learning problem over one summer. But we’re going to be planning for that over the next three years. So we’re putting monies aside, in order to be able to do a similar type of approach, summer learning and academic enrichment, social emotional supports, before- and after-school programs when schools restart, so all of those things will be in place. And then we could look for investments in things like technology, and things that are non-recurring but will nonetheless have a long-term impact on schools. And so there are lots of things that we can do around facilities, technology, and loss and interrupted learning, social emotional types of services that we want to plan for over the next three years.

>Do you think you can solve all the outdated and concerning ventilation problems using this money? 

I’m not sure. Even if the money could solve the problem, the money doesn’t create 21st century learning environments. [The University of Pennsylvania] committed $100 million for environmental things, but if you recall we had a $4.5 billion needs assessment done on our facilities, and that was just to bring buildings up to code. So to the extent we can use some of these monies to make repairs and do that type of work, we plan to do that. And looking at how we can use dollars most effectively, so that it has a long-term impact. And we hope that then it will allow us to actually work to save some money over a period of time.

>Since it is one-time funding, can you hire more teachers and counselors, as some people have urged?

You never say never. In fact, we’re planning to expand some types of supports, particularly in off-track schools. As part of our budget, some schools could see additional staff that will be a part of making sure children have what they need over a short period of time. That’s why we’re talking about summer and before- and after-school programming. But you won’t see it wholesale across all schools. I think the School District of Philadelphia has been through that before with the other stimulus package [after the 2008 recession], and it resulted in massive layoffs once those monies ran out. We don’t want to make that mistake again. 

> Why is there so much distrust between the administration and a lot of teachers and parents? What can you do to improve it?

That’s one of the reasons we wanted to work with the union to put a process in place to actually deal with this notion of trust. I was talking to a group earlier today. There were people who lost loved ones. People have been in buildings that have been in disrepair for years. It’s not like we haven’t been trying to solve these problems, but we can’t do it even with all our money. I’m not sure the capacity exists in the city workforce-wise to address those issues with everything else going on. We have to build trust back by doing what you say you’re going to do and involving those individuals in the decisions and the processes. I was just in several classrooms, talking to teachers and just to hear what they were describing in terms of the classroom setups. The more we do that, the better we could be in terms of rebuilding trust of not just teachers, but families and everyone else who’s working with the school district. And I think over a period of time, we will see that trust return.  

>You’re seeking between 800 and 900 new teachers. Do you think you’ll be fully staffed next year?

So that’s why we kicked off Teach in Philly. By the way, this number is lower than it has been in prior years. It’s about 10% [of the current workforce]. There have been years when we had to hire 3,000 teachers, but this number is much lower, and it’s natural attrition that we’re planning for.  

>Some schools have more adults than children. Why?

You start small, right? You start small to prove the concept. People will trust more if they see children going to and from school, no matter how few. I’ve been to five or six schools now. And at every school, they have parents asking to send more children. And I do think that helps build trust. And I think the same happens with the workforce. I’ve always said this plan was going to be built on two pillars, one was safety, the other one was choice. So if one parent chose to do it, and only one parent, you can’t deny that parent the choice to make that decision. And because the only people who had choice up to that point were those who did not want to send their children to schools, those parents who wanted to send their children to schools had no choice. And so what we’re trying to do is make sure that we continue to operate with these two pillars, safety and choice.

>This June it will make nine years in office, making you one of the longest-serving superintendents in the district’s history. Your contract is up at the end of 2022. Do you expect to stay that long and would you like to stay longer?

I haven’t even thought about that. I’m trying to get children back in school right at the moment. I expect to work through my contract period. I haven’t even thought about what happens beyond that period of time. I’m proud of the work that my colleagues have been doing in the district during that time period. We’ve had challenge after challenge, and I say ‘we’ collectively, the city has had to navigate a lot of these challenges with old buildings and lack of resources. But I’m proud of the work that individuals have been doing. I’ve been proud of that work since I’ve been here.