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Philadelphia Schools, Citing Inequality, Won't Teach Online

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Philadelphia City Hall.

The Philadelphia School District will not offer remote instruction during the coronavirus shutdown, the superintendent announced Wednesday, citing equity concerns in a city where many students lack computers or high-speed internet at home.

School districts nationwide have been wrestling with the same issues as they explore ways to keep children engaged as classrooms are shuttered for weeks or longer.

In Philadelphia, where some teachers had been offering forms of optional remote instruction on their own, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said at a City Hall news conference that no students will be required to log on to a computer or submit assignments.

"If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make it available to some,” Hite said.

The vast majority of Philadelphia’s 200,000 students come from low-income families. About 130,000 go to district schools, while the rest attend charter schools free to set their own policies. The district has closed schools through March 27.

The district had sent students home Friday with learning packets, and will continue to distribute them along with grab-and-go meals at sites across the city. Teachers can check on students through emails or phone calls, but cannot offer any instruction.

The digital divide is less of an issue in wealthier suburbs nearby, some of which provide laptops or tablets to students.

“It’s showing the cracks in the system between the ‘have-nots’ and the ’haves,’ so that the 'have-nots,’ who probably have the greatest needs, are the least able to provide the missing resources. It is not a surprise,” said Michael Churchill, staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center, which has sued the state of Pennsylvania over a school funding formula that leaves some districts spending $10,000 per child per year and others $27,000.

Parent Alexandra Meer, a home care nurse with four children in city schools, in 5th to 8th grades, believes that learning can be put aside for “less stressful times.” She's just trying to keep her family healthy.

She understands the inequity issue and said “it isn’t fair for some of us to be able to learn and others not.” However, she added, “my worry is survival, not conjugating verbs.”

Other families feel overwhelmed without help from the schools.

One mother who reached out to the Education Law Center in Philadelphia has three children with disabilities, including one with autism. The family, who are non-English speakers, do not have a computer at home.

“This is Day 2. They have nothing to do. They’re regressing already,” said attorney Margie Wakelin said. “Those are the stories that we’re going to be hearing more and more about.”

The nonprofit, which advocates for disadvantaged students, plans to challenge Hite’s decision, she said, noting that larger districts, including New York City, plan to offer remote instruction.

“It’s not easy thinking through what is necessary to meet these equity issues. But they’re thinking it through because they know it’s necessary," she said.

Ohio’s largest school district, Columbus City Schools, offered parents suggestions about educational apps and websites to encourage at-home learning during the three-week shutdown announced so far. But district officials there, like those in Philadelphia, aren’t requiring children to keep up with any online coursework.

District spokesman Scott Wortman said that could change if the closure drags on, depending on legal requirements and guidance from the state.

"We realize this is an unprecedented situation we are all facing,” Wortman said.

Associated Press reporter Kantele Franko contributed to this report from Columbus, Ohio.