All students will have internet access, superintendent says

School district unpacks cartons of new books for Philly kids
Superintendent William Hite told reporters Wednesday that all Philadelphia public school students will have internet access when the district reopens virtually. 
Charles Mostoller

Superintendent William Hite vowed Wednesday that all Philadelphia public school students will have internet access for the district’s fully virtual start to the school year.

Exactly how that will happen remains unclear. Hite told reporters Wednesday that he is meeting weekly with Mayor Jim Kenney’s office, City Council and internet service providers to make sure families are connected.

“We’re going to treat it like the Chromebooks,” he said. “We’re going to solve that problem. All of our children who need internet access will have it.”

The School District of Philadelphia distributed thousands of Chromebooks to students after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close in the spring.

Hite said the district doesn’t know how many children currently don’t have access to the internet, but that the officials are working to collect information from telecommunications companies and surveying parents.

About 88 percent of households in the city have broadband subscriptions, according to census data from 2018.

On Tuesday, district leaders announced their intention to delay in-person reopening of classrooms through Nov. 17, the end of the first marking period.

The revised plan, which has the support of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, will be up for a vote at a Board of Education meeting Thursday.

Hite’s goal is still an eventual return to face-to-face instruction if benchmarks are met.

“We know that without (students) having a routine and having the structures in place and having the adult with them that is helping them to navigate their learning, they may fall further behind, so that’s what I worry about,” he said.

“Young adults aren’t equipped to remain isolated, and I think keeping them in isolation is ultimately problematic,” Hite added.

The decision to put off the original plan, a hybrid model with students coming into schools twice a week, was based mainly on feedback, not the advice of health experts, Hite said.

At the time the plan was crafted, he said, most staff favored the hybrid approach, based on district and teachers’ union polls. However, as coronavirus cases crept up regionally, comfort levels began to drop.

“The perceptions around the fear associated with the virus and the surge in case counts created a dynamic that we were not anticipating,” Hite said.

As it stands, virtual classes, scheduled to begin Sept. 2, will look much different than in the spring.

Daily attendance will be recorded, and students will be required to complete assignments. Grading will take place, though some guidelines will be rewritten, officials said.

“This is going to be school, which means days are going to be more structured,” Hite said.

Students will have direct, real-time interactions with teachers, either with their whole class or in small groups, said Malika Savoy-Brooks, the district’s chief academic supports officer. She said they will also be instructed to complete independent tasks, such as reading or watching a video or presentation.

District officials said they also want to make sure children aren’t overburdened with screen time.

Some teachers, Hite said, have already contacted the district about leading virtual sessions from their physical classrooms. That will be allowed, and the district hopes to be able to arrange meetings between teachers, students and families in very small groups, he added.

Parts of schools could be used as drop-off sites, where parents who have to work can leave their children to do their virtual classes. There’s also been talk of using libraries and recreation centers.

“That’s being coordinated by the city, so we’re working with the city to identify those locations,” Hite said.

City-run pre-K programs may reopen, but the district’s pre-K centers will be 100 percent virtual for the time being, according to Hite.

As for the “Digital Academy,” a completely opt-in program proposed under the original plan, district leaders said they would have to examine if there would be the capacity to run it side-by-side with the hybrid model if in-person classes resume in November.