Philly to buy laptops for needy students for virtual classes during shutdown

Philly says it’s moving toward online education as fast as it can — buying thousands of devices for students who need them.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Based on guidance from the federal government, the School District of Philadelphia is proceeding with a plan to offer more rigorous virtual instruction during the coronavirus shutdown —  a reversal from last week when it said equity concerns hampered its ability to provide mandated, graded learning.

The new plan can only go into place by providing laptops and broadband access to all students as the district prepares for longterm school closures, Superintendent William Hite said during a conference call on Tuesday.

The unprecedented effort involves giving out devices currently used only in schools, as well as working with corporations and others to procure more as needed.

This could amount to tens of thousands of devices at an undetermined cost. Based on a survey that had 83,000 student responses, Hite said more than half of the district’s students have access to technology at home. The survey did not include smartphones.

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“We are looking into acquisition and distribution over the next couple of weeks,” Hite said. While the task may seem impossible, the New York City Department of Education distributed 175,000 laptops, Chromebooks, and iPads over the last few weeks and began online learning Monday.

Hite said that officials will provide more details on cost at a school board meeting on Thursday.

While Hite mostly said “devices,” at one point he referenced Chromebooks, which are manufactured by Google. Most district schools use Google classroom.

The district is also looking to acquire mobile “hot spots” for families that do not have high-speed internet access.

To gauge need, Hite said the district will rely on principals and teachers to survey their students to find out who needs technological help. Philadelphia is, many times over, the largest school district in Pennsylvania.

“Naturally it’s going to take some time to work through some logistics of this plan,” Hite said. “We will have to do this very much at the school level.”

Hite confirmed that Philadelphia schools will be closed at least through April 13. Gov. Wolf on Monday ordered schools closed through April 6, but Philadelphia’s spring break begins that same day. Hite said even if the closure order was not extended, he said that district staff would have needed the extra week to prepare schools for reopening.

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Guidance from feds

The district’s evolving approach to online education comes amid shifting guidance from state and federal authorities. There was particular confusion around how districts should approach their legal obligations to special-education students — given that some students require services that would be difficult, or impossible, to deliver online.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Education told districts that their plans for continuing education “must ensure full access to learning for all students, with particular attention to free appropriate public education (FAPE) for students with disabilities.”

That advice prompted many districts to make online education materials optional and ungraded so that they would not run afoul of the law.

The U.S. Department of Education responded recently with a fact sheet clarifying that “ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)…should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

The federal government said it understood the ongoing school shutdown may require schools to shift the way they teach students with disabilities and that it would “offer flexibility where possible.” The U.S. DOE also left open the possibility that, once schools reopen, districts could provide “compensatory services” to students for whom there was a “delay in providing services.”

Hite said this shift in tone from the federal government encouraged district leaders to formulate a more complete online education program.

“We no longer had to wait until we could provide services to everyone before providing any service whatsoever,” Hite said.

However, advocacy groups on Monday sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera Monday saying that they feared the new federal regulations could put vulnerable students at risk. The groups asked Wolf to issue an executive order and the Department of Education to issue new guidance requiring school districts to provide educational services to all children, including individualized programs for students with disabilities and appropriate services for English learners.

“We are gravely concerned that children, particularly children with disabilities, English Learners, and children living in poverty, will be irrevocably harmed if they do not receive services that address their educational needs while schools are physically closed due to COVID-19 for an extended period of time,” the letter said, signed by groups including the Education Law Center.

Maura McInerney, legal director of ELC, said that the district’s effort to get devices and internet access to all students “is an important step.” But, she added, “school systems must work to ensure they are providing educational services to all students, including those with disabilities, and modifying instruction to ensure equal access for English learners. Our letter asks the governor and the Department of Education to send a clear message to public schools that they must provide these educational services to all students.”

Other states and jurisdictions have established model practices, she said. In addition to New York City’s technology distribution, it has also developed online instruction that complies with state laws. Ohio is assuring continued evaluation of students with disabilities. Other jurisdictions are holding virtual meetings to develop individualized education programs for each student based on their special needs.

Hite said that he anticipates that special education students and English learners will have extended summer sessions to work on skill development and provide services such as occupational therapy that it is difficult to do remotely.

The letter from the advocacy groups also made it clear that they believe that providing no remote instruction — the initial posture of Philadelphia and some other districts — was not acceptable.

“We should be providing educational services during this period to prevent regression and other loss of critical skills to mitigate the need for compensatory education services and remedial instruction and support students in making academic progress,” the letter said.

It noted that in Puerto Rico, where 250 schools were closed for an extended period after Hurricane Maria, all students were harmed but “students with disabilities in particular…suffered significant long-term consequences.”

The crisis, the ELC letter said, “has underscored the deep disparities in educational resources between well-funded and underfunded school districts and the inequities in educational access available to the students within these districts.”

Wealthier districts like Lower Merion have a full online curriculum delivered by teachers who have been trained and “are also modifying instruction and providing accommodations for students with disabilities.”

Hite reiterated on his conference call that families can pick up meals at 49 district schools, even with Mayor Kenney’s stay-in-place order. Meals are available Mondays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon. He said that on Monday, 53,000 meals were distributed to 8,100 students. Each student can get three breakfasts and three lunches at once.

“That is more meals than were distributed all of last week,” he said.

Meanwhile, other advocates are pushing the district to move faster in its efforts to educate students online.

The group Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) started a campaign Monday called “TEACH OUR KIDS” that calls for the state Department of Education to help districts like Philadelphia purchase technology for students. It also urges Philadelphia leaders to “accelerate the process” of providing access to all students “so that teachers can teach and our kids [can learn.]”

Regardless of what happens in the ensuing weeks, Superintendent Hite said he expects this school year to end with “an asterisk.” The district will prioritize getting technology to every student that needs it, he said — eventually moving toward a model where “students can be in a class, somehow, virtually.”

“I would also add that in no way, shape, or form is that approach going to be sufficient to replace a teacher that stands in front of students on a day-to-day basis,” Hite said.

WHYY is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at or follow at @brokeinphilly.

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