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March 24, 2020

Philly school year could end with an 'asterisk' if coronavirus pandemic persists, Superintendent Hite says

To offer virtual classes, district officials are securing computers, internet access for all students

Education Schools
Coronavirus Philly Schools Chromebooks Internet Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The School District of Philadelphia is working to secure computers and internet access for all students so that it can begin offering virtual classes. Still, Superintendent William Hite says it's possible the coronavirus pandemic could wipe out the school year.

The coronavirus pandemic could wipe out the rest of the school year, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite acknowledged Tuesday morning. 

All Pennsylvania schools are closed until at least April 6, as ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf. Though district officials are hoping school returns sometime in April, Hite said the district is preparing to be out much longer. 

The year could even end with an "asterisk," he said.

"There are two states already that have indicated that their school years, for all intents and purposes, will end on the third marking period," Hite said. "I can envision something like that happening here in Pennsylvania if this goes on much longer." 

In the meantime, district officials are working to provide Chromebooks and internet access to any student in need. The district aims to shift from having students complete guidebooks – which must be picked up at distribution points–  to an online curriculum while the pandemic plays out. 

But doing so requires that all students have proper access. And less than half of the district's students have access to a computer and internet at home, according to surveys the district conducted last spring. 

District officials plan to distribute the Chromebooks used in schools, but they do not own enough to supply all students in need. They are in talks with Comcast, among others, to secure additional laptops and broadband internet access, Hite said. 

The exact cost of the distribution and acquisition plan has not been determined, Hite said. An estimate will be given at Thursday's school board meeting. 

"Naturally, we would welcome the assistance of any group that wants to support that," Hite said. "In order to move this along as quickly as possible, we would have to determine how many we need, in addition to those that are already in schools."

Comcast already is providing its Internet Essentials program for free for 60 days to low-income households. Hite said district officials are looking to see what other providers can offer, too.

"We would naturally look to Comcast as a significant partner, but so is everyone else in the country," Hite said. Comcast did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

District officials will rely on principals and teachers to help identify the students that need computers and internet access, Hite said. The aim to have the computers in the students' hands by the time their current 10-day workbooks conclude.

The goal is to provide students with a more robust learning environment, one that allows them to take part in virtual classes, Hite said. But the district must ensure all students are provided equal opportunities – and that means properly equipping them. 

"The onset is really about making sure children will have access to all the digital and remote resources that are now available," Hite said. "In no way is that approach going to be sufficient to replace a teacher who stands in front of students on a day-to-day basis." 

Under Pennsylvania Department of Education guidelines, teachers are not permitted to grade students or take attendance while schools are closed, Hite said. But they can teach virtual classes and assign homework. And district officials are encouraging teachers to maintain frequent contact during the delay.

Still, Hite said the third marking period, which just ended, could mark the end of the academic year. For now, third-quarter grades remain open. 

"If we closed those grades now and we could not finish the year, then the third quarter would be the end of the school year," Hite said. "We intentionally left that grading period open because we cannot guarantee that everyone would have access to all of the opportunities to submit assignments and do grades for the fourth quarter." 

Even if schools can reopen on April 6, Hite said the district would continue with its scheduled spring break. That's because district officials will need to prepare schools for re-opening. 

Similarly, Hite said it will be impossible to finish the school year during the summer and then immediately head into the following academic year.

"I don't see any way possible in the School District of Philadelphia that we could then continue right on through the summer into the next school year without taking adequate time to prepare for the beginning of the year," Hite said.