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Philadelphia students to start year online under new plan

  • The Associated Press
Jules E. Mastbaum high school on Frankford Ave. in Philadelphia.

 Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Jules E. Mastbaum high school on Frankford Ave. in Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The School District of Philadelphia is switching gears to keep all public school students in online classes after a previous plan to return students to class two days a week drew fears and criticism from parents, teachers and administrators.

The district announced it’s revised plan for students Tuesday, which calls for online-only instruction at least through the first marking period that ends in mid-November. The district will hold a public forum on the revised plan Thursday when the school board is expected to vote.

The new plan would switch to a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning after Nov. 17 as long as the city’s Department of Health confirmed it was safe to do so, school officials said.

“These changes were not made lightly. All of the decisions we are making due to the COVID-19 pandemic are difficult ones with no obvious answers for how to account for the many, and often competing, needs of our students, staff and families,” Superintendent William Hite said in an emailed statement. “As I’ve stated many times before, this school year will be a challenge for us all, as we learn how to cope with this ‘new normal.’ And being flexible will be essential for us all.”

State officials have largely avoided issuing a one-size-fits-all directive to school districts on how or whether they should physically reopen. A superintendents group pressed the Pennsylvania Department of Health Monday for stronger guidance, saying school leaders and school boards need more help with specific safety guidance.

The Philadelphia district had sent surveys to parents and sought input for several weeks prior to issuing the plan to return to schools. But many parents and teachers still questioned whether it was safe with the increase in positive coronavirus cases and other factors like many students being asked to ride public transportation to and from school.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers issued a statement earlier Tuesday urging the district to consider online learning for now.

“Never in our lifetimes have we seen a situation like this, and there is no road map for how to navigate so many factors,” said teachers union President Jerry Jordan. “We desperately want to reopen school buildings, but unfortunately, there’s been a confluence of events–not the least of which being the virus trajectory itself–that shows that this is simply not possible.”

Under the Philadelphia district’s previous proposal, most students would have come back to schools for in-person instruction two days every week and participated in online instruction for three days. Parents also had the option of choosing all online instruction through the district’s virtual academy.

As of late last week, about 2,000 students had been registered for the online option. The deadline to register was set for August 4 and parents had to agree to keep the students online for two marking periods.

The part-time return to schools drew intense sometimes emotional testimony during a school board meeting last Thursday, where more than 100 parents, teachers and administrators called to voice concerns about the district’s ability to ensure student and employee safety. Hite withdrew the plan before the board voted.

City officials including Health Commissioner Thomas Farley had said they supported students physically returning because safety concerns needed to be weighed against the needs of students who would fair better with in-person instruction including students who speak English as a second language and those with learning disabilities that make online classes difficult.

The announcement Tuesday did not address the specific plans for those populations of students. The district said it would still work to provide laptops to students who needed them and officials were working with local businesses and legislators to find reliable internet options for those without high-speed internet at home.

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