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March 18, 2020

Philly school district pauses online instruction over state, federal equity mandates

Teachers had posted work online, but it couldn't be guaranteed all students had access while out of the classroom for the coronavirus pandemic

Education Schools
Coronavirus Philly School District Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia School District superintendent Dr. William Hite explained why remote instruction for students must be limited to follow federal and state education department guidelines during the coronavirus closure period.

The School District of Philadelphia has advised principals to stop teachers from providing online class instruction during while restrictions are in place and students are out of classes due to the coronavirus, Superintendent Dr. William Hite explained Wednesday. 

A memo circulated to the city's public school principals on Tuesday night provided a directive to halt "remote instruction" specifically through the internet, at-home technology, by phone or otherwise. The equity of such instruction could not be guaranteed to all students, as is required. 

Speaking Wednesday, Hite said the decision was necessary in order to comply with guidelines mandated by the state and federal departments of education. Schools will remain closed through March 27, based on the current plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

"That language and that decision was based on guidance that we received," Hite said. "It specifically called out three ways in which districts could provide services to students during this closure. One is flexible instruction days for districts with approved plans, another was online digital opportunities, and the third was non-digital opportunities, or materials sent home with students."

Hite emphasized the district is still encouraging Philly's schools to present students with opportunities to learn during the closure, and has provided guides for online learning

"We will be providing updated guidance to that language as indicated in the letter," Hite said. "We are encouraging learning at home during this period of time. We are not prohibiting teachers from reaching out to their students, to the students' families, to provide activities or resources for those young people to engage in. The one thing that we are prohibiting, however, is a requirement to login, a requirement to take attendance and a requirement to distribute grades." 

Hite, who described the situation as "ever-evolving," said this guidance may change moving forward. For the time being, the district is working to understand what its capacity is to provide services for all students. 

Local education agencies, according to the state and federal rules, must ensure there is full access to all learning for students, with particular attention given to those with special needs and students who are learning English. 

Hite said the public school district's staff is working to determine what schools are offering and what schools are capable of delivering. 

In other parts of the country, such as Colorado, school districts have taken different approaches to meeting the guidelines. Some have made online learning optional, meaning attendance would not be taken and students would not be penalized for not participating. Others have required the course work, but are not enforcing students to complete the work at the same time throughout the day. 

In Seattle's Northshore School District, one of the first in the United States to close because of the coronavirus, initial plans called for virtual instruction to be provided to all of its 25,000 students. Those plans were later abandoned when it became clear they didn't meet federal guidelines for access.