As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage our country, preparations are being made for the upcoming school year to make learning as safe as possible. With little over a month before the school year starts, there is still much uncertainty over what this will mean for students. Recently, the Philadelphia School District provided some details of what school will look like in the Fall — sort of.

Classes will be a hybrid of in-class instruction and remote learning from home. According to the School District of Philadelphia’s plan for the 2020-2021 school year, students will receive two days of in-class instruction and three days of remote learning. Remote learning will occur on Fridays for all students. However, there are vague statements that make the plan confusing.

For example, there’s a statement in the district’s announcement that teachers will have one prep day a week. Additionally, an optional online digital academy is available, but what this exactly entails is unknown. The plan lacks any specifics, with the only stipulation being that it will act independently of the child’s neighborhood school. Also, parents must register by August 4th if their child intends to enroll.

Furthermore, the plan provides little detail as to what hybrid instruction will entail. How will students learn with half the class in the classroom and half online? Does the technology to do so exist, given the school district’s financial troubles? Also, a few of the district’s release statements contradict some of the demands of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). These demands, including those focused on virus tracking and ventilation in schools, led PFT President Jerry Jordan to object to the entire reopening plan at the Board of Education meeting on July 23rd.

Moreover, the district’s plan states the caveat that specific policies and procedures will consider the capabilities of individual schools. This statement is alarming, for not only do my wife and I not know what our daughter’s school year will look like; neither does the school administration.

The most recent developments are perhaps the most troubling. On July 24th, after an eight-hour meeting that included six hours of public testimony, the school board punted; they voted to delay implementing the school district’s plan. Unable to reach an agreement, the school district decided to recess until July 30th. Of particular importance, information on the exact days of the week their children would be in school was promised to the parents by July 27th.

The most recent developments are perhaps the most troubling. On July 24th, after an eight-hour meeting that included six hours of public testimony, the school board punted.

There are only a few weeks left to put this together. For a variety of reasons, parents need to know their children’s schedule, least of which so they can provide accommodation requests to their employers. Not adhering to the July 27th deadline is a disservice to the entire city. Of course, this is in addition to the most significant concern: if students will be in school at all.

There have been a series of bureaucratic missteps which seem to have continued all through the summer. In the Spring, school was delayed until all children were provided Chromebooks and broadband. That didn’t happen; it is uncertain if it ever will. My child’s report card for last year has a blank column for the fourth marking period. Students who were prepared to learn floundered. In the name of equality, the district’s answer was to have all students equally fail. I fear we’re setting our children up to fail again.

Moreover, the gridlock over preparation for the upcoming school year is indicative of a much larger problem – the political polarization in our country.

With regard to leadership, we have a federal Department of Education, so everyone first turns to Washington for guidance. Yet this department is mired by political battles. The Trump administration provided guidance and advocated for students to return to school – only the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) doesn’t agree. So many of the more liberal-minded, union-ruled school systems reject the directives of the very Department of Education they fight so hard to maintain in political battles with the right.

In the name of equality, the district’s answer was to have all students equally fail. I fear we’re setting our children up to fail again.

Meanwhile, conservatives should use this moment as proof that a federal Department of Education is a waste of taxpayer dollars and a burden on local control of schools — missing an opportunity to scrap the entire bureaucracy. Instead, they’re stamping their feet complaining that the local districts must heed the demands of Washington.

Lost in all of this is what the mental health, socialization, and learning retention effects of all of this uncertainty will have on our children. It almost seems that the constituency of kids is not even being considered. The Department of Education, school boards and school districts, teachers’ unions, and school administrators all assure us they have the best interest of families at heart as they turn this crisis into a power grab. I wish that were true.


Update: On July 28th the Philadelphia School District released a new plan which will keep all students at home learning virtually until at least November 17th. All instructors will be from each student’s neighborhood school. The virtual learning academy has been scrapped. The plan is expected to be passed by the school board.

George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis from Changemakers Books, and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.

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